The Farm Bill: Proof That Congress Is Getting Better

The House's passage of bipartisan agricultural legislation could be a good sign for the debt ceiling, immigration reform, and overall congressional sanity.
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The farm bill passed the House with remarkable ease Wednesday. That's a big deal, and not just for those directly affected by the legislation (farmers and food-stamp recipients): It's the latest sign that Congress has rediscovered its ability to get things done. 

On a strongly bipartisan vote of 251 to 166, the lower chamber approved compromise legislation to continue agricultural subsidies and food stamps, while enacting cost-saving reforms to both. (The five-year bill's price tag is estimated at nearly $100 billion per year.) The Senate still must pass the bill in turn. And of course, for the many on both left and right who see the farm bill as a ruinous boondoggle, this isn't an accomplishment at all. For more on the debate over farm policy and the politics surrounding it, please check out my exciting deep dive on the subject from earlier this week.

But Wednesday's speedy passage stood in stark contrast to the two-year saga of delay and partisan conflict that had marked the legislation until now. In 2012, the Senate passed a farm bill, the House Agriculture Committee passed a farm bill—and then it never came to the floor of the House for a vote. In 2013, the Senate passed a farm bill, but the House voted down its version of the legislation. Democratic and Republican negotiators from the House and Senate had been trying to work out a compromise ever since, but kept getting stuck, particularly on the question of whether the government should get to dictate how much milk dairies can produce. Representative Frank Lucas, a Republican from Oklahoma who chairs the agriculture committee, said after negotiators reached a deal Monday: "If I expire in the next three days, I want a glass of milk carved on my tombstone, because it's what killed me." (Supply controls were replaced with price supports in the final deal.)

The 2013 bill failed because House Republicans, doing the bidding of right-wing outside groups like the Heritage Foundation and Club for Growth, made the bill too conservative for Democrats to support: They imposed huge cuts to food stamps along with tough work requirements for food-stamp recipients. Yet even that didn't go far enough for the far right, with the result that there wasn't enough Republican support to pass the bill without Democratic votes. The 2014 bill succeeded because the House GOP came back with a less toxic version of the bill and then—crucially—ignored the outside groups' caterwauling and threats. About as many Republicans, 63, voted against the bill Wednesday as the 62 who did so last year. But with 89 Democrats in favor instead of zero, it sailed through anyway. 

For connoisseurs of congressional chaos, the farm bill is the third data point in the case for a thaw on Capitol Hill. First there was the budget deal, negotiated by Republican Representative Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray and passed in December. Then there was the $1.1 trillion appropriations bill that passed both houses with similar ease earlier this month. (The budget deal set topline spending levels for the next two years, while the appropriations bill filled in the details, allocating federal monies through October.) Together with the farm bill, these actions bolster the case that the post-shutdown House GOP has tempered the obstructionism and slavish obedience to Tea Party-aligned outside groups that previously frustrated both Democrats and many Republicans—including Boehner, whose newly tough line against the outside groups continues to pay dividends. (The groups, in turn, are vowing to make lawmakers pay in another round of GOP primaries; stay tuned.) President Obama, in his State of the Union address Tuesday, forecast a "breakthrough year." In Congress, there's evidence a breakthrough is actually under way.

This new spirit bodes well for the upcoming debt-limit deadline, currently forecast for late February. Many Republicans continue to insist that the White House cede concessions on spending or healthcare in exchange for their agreement to raise the limit; the White House continues to insist it will not negotiate. These are both sides' usual postures for this now-familiar dance. But Boehner deeply dislikes flirting with default, and House Republicans privately acknowledge they are likely to raise the ceiling without getting anything in return, as Politico recently reported.

The next test could be immigration. House Republicans will spend Thursday and Friday at their annual retreat, gathering behind closed doors at a Maryland resort to map a strategy for the year ahead. Leaders have said they will release a set of immigration-reform "principles" at the meeting, paving the way for a set of discrete bills on such topics as border security, employer verification, guest workers, and—most controversially—a legalization proposal for those currently in the U.S. illegally, derided as amnesty by opponents. Observers expect the GOP's proposal to provide a path not to citizenship but to non-citizen legal status for most of the undocumented, with the likely exception of "Dreamers," those brought to the U.S. as young children. Though citizenship has long been immigration reformers' absolute demand, Democrats appear willing to consider this: At an Atlantic Live symposium Wednesday, two Democratic representatives, Joaquin Castro of Texas and Diana DeGette of Colorado, said they would not rule out voting for such a plan.

Too much disagreement and rancor remain to call this a new dawn for Congress. But the evidence is mounting that things are getting better.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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