The recent defeat of the farm bill on the floor of the House of Representatives shows how difficult legislating has become in a polarized Congress. Since the 1960s, agricultural politics has been a largely bipartisan affair. As recently as 2008, it was possible to construct a cross-party coalition in favor of farm legislation; in fact, the 2008 farm bill became law when a two-thirds majority voted to override the veto of President George W. Bush.
Historically, farm bill politics relied on an urban-rural logroll in which farm state lawmakers voted for food stamps in exchange for urban votes on agricultural subsidies. This year’s debate shows how much this has changed. Republican efforts to cut nutrition programs, including passage of an amendment adding strict work requirements as a condition of eligibility, all but assured Democratic opposition. When ultra-conservative Republicans split ranks because they felt these cuts did not go far enough, they effectively killed the bill.
Looking more closely at the vote it is clear that support for the legislation overwhelmingly comes from districts that receive farm subsidies. It has become more and more difficult to attract non-farm state representatives to support agriculture programs. Using data collected by the Environmental Working Group, the median subsidy in districts whose members voted in favor of the bill was $7.8 million in 2012 compared to total subsidies of only $596,800 in districts whose members voted no. This difference is more pronounced when broken down by party. Among the 24 Democrats supporting the bill, the median subsidy was over $14 million compared to only $420,000 in the 172 Democratic districts whose members voted against the bill. The difference among Republicans is a bit less stark: the median subsidy in the 171 GOP districts voting in favor was around $10 million in 2012, compared to $2.5 million in the 62 districts whose members voted against the farm bill.
It is this opposition to the farm bill, even among farm state lawmakers, that is potentially of greatest consequence. Looking at (the log of) subsidies by party and vote on farm bill passage indicates that many members whose districts received sizable government payments still voted no.
One such member is Representative Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) who represents the First Congressional District in Western Kansas. Huelskamp’s district received over $300 million in subsidies in 2012, second only to the at-large district of North Dakota. Although ultra-conservative Huelskamp is something of a renegade (he lost his seat on the House Agriculture Committee in late 2012 after continually running afoul of his party’s leadership), his behavior illustrates how much the Republican Party has changed, and how much farm bill politics has changed. Huelskamp represents the same Kansas district that elected Robert Dole, a central figure in the creation of the Food Stamp Program in the 1960s. In fact, Huelskamp’s departure from the House Agriculture Committee marks the first time since the 1940s that the Kansas First has not had a Representative on the agriculture panel.
Some farm state Democrats also opposed the bill. Ron Kind’s (D-WI) district received over $57 million in subsidies. However, Kind has criticized farm programs and he introduced an amendment that would have limited the size of crop insurance subsidies to $40,000 per farmer. The amendment failed.
What does the farm bill defeat mean for the future of food and nutrition policy? Two paths are possible. The most likely is that farm state lawmakers will reconstruct the farm bill coalition, perhaps by introducing the Senate version of the bill. The Senate version includes modest cuts to SNAP and therefore would attract more Democratic support. The other option, admittedly less likely, is to pass the commodity title that authorizes farm subsidies separately from the nutrition title that covers SNAP. This option is favored by conservatives such as Paul Ryan, who voted against the farm bill.
Splitting off farm subsidies from nutrition programs would be enormously consequential. In political terms, it would formally tear apart the urban-rural coalition that has been in place since the 1960s. In policy terms it would expose SNAP funding to deep cuts so long as Republicans hold a majority in the House. However, breaking the coalition would also expose farm subsidies to cuts as rural lawmakers could no longer lean on urban members for support. Interestingly, neither side wants to see less money going to its constituents yet this may be what happens as polarized policymaking makes cross-partisan coalitions less stable.