The Poster Child for Washington Dysfunction

How the farm bill went from a beacon of bipartisanship to a stalled-out symptom of ideological ineptitude

Jim Young/Reuters

The news that there will be no farm bill this year, after three futile years of embarrassing setbacks and turmoil, made me reflect on the larger issues. Exhibit A is the farm bill, the poster child for the state of dysfunction in Congress and American politics.

In 1969-70, my first year in Washington, George McGovern memorably took to the Senate floor to reflect on his colleagues' culpability in the Vietnam War. He said, "The walls of this chamber reek with blood," drawing a collective gasp from those on the floor and in the galleries. You weren't supposed to talk that way in the Senate. A week or so later, Bob Dole, then a freshman senator, took to the floor and ripped the bark off of McGovern for his apostasy.

But sometime later in the year, I saw McGovern and Dole walking arm in arm in the Old Senate Office Building. They forged a relationship that blossomed into a 40-year-plus friendship, based on their common interest in dealing with food issues. Dole, representing his Kansas farmers, embraced the food-stamp program on their behalf, a way to deal with farm surpluses. McGovern, with a deep passion to alleviate hunger in America, embraced a system of price supports that gave money to agribusinesses for not planting crops as a way to fund the food-stamp program.

Their alliance reflected a more than five-decade relationship between rural and urban lawmakers that made farm bills possible, a kind of model for how Congress, through compromises and trade-offs, can find majorities for legislation that primarily benefits minorities or narrower interests. To be sure, the alliance was at best imperfect; the farm price-support system was not very smart public policy. But on balance, the coalition worked, given the larger politics that surrounded both agriculture and food stamps, providing stable and ample food supplies while adding to the safety net for the poorest among us.

In mid-2012, there were "green shoots" in the Senate over a renewal of the five-year authorization of the farm bill due to expire at the end of this year. Through adroit maneuvers, Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, working with Pat Roberts and other Democrats and Republicans, put together a package that got overwhelming, broad support in the Senate. It looked like a model of bipartisan cooperation, providing a lower budget and a modest but real set of reforms in the antiquated price-support system that discomfited a lot of farm-state solons. It also contained some cuts in food stamps, a bow to conservatives who wanted to reduce spending but a loss for liberals. The deal managed to win 90 votes.

Politico's David Rogers, who has covered the farm-bill dynamics meticulously, quoted Rep. Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat and the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, about the Tea Party-dominated House, "If this gets through the Senate, the dynamics change and I don't think they can stop it."

Wrong. Despite facing the greatest drought since the Great Depression and broad and deep support for a bill in the Senate, the House managed to reach new depths of dysfunctional embarrassment when Majority Leader Eric Cantor singlehandedly blew up a delicate compromise forged by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas and ranking member Collin Peterson. Cantor decided to get behind a provision on the House floor aimed at cutting food stamps dramatically over 10 years; instituted punitive new work requirements; gave states financial incentive to drop eligible people from the food-stamp rolls; and took away states' flexibility over waivers of job-training provisions in the program in the face of continuing high unemployment. As Rogers detailed, 62 House Republicans who voted for the amendment (which alienated a slew of moderates) then voted against the bill, killing it on the floor. Nine of the 62 were committee chairs who took on their fellow chairman Lucas, showing that the regular order of deliberation in committees, and a basic deference to the delicate, bipartisan compromises worked out there, had disappeared in the House.

Subsequently, Cantor took the nutrition component and, ignoring the committee process, jammed through a plan to double down on food-stamp cuts, slashing $40 billion over 10 years, on a 217-210 vote that involved no committee markup and no amendments allowed on the House floor.

To be sure, Cantor's actions were not just based on his own views. A slew of House Republicans were—and still are—determined to blow up the food-stamp program, transforming it radically while cutting it deeply, undeterred by the high level of hunger in America and stubbornly high unemployment, and unfazed by the fact that this demand has itself blown up any ability to get a bill enacted.

After all the turmoil, we finally saw a House/Senate conference committee convene; it has worked diligently for weeks to try to beat the year-end deadline and finally get a new law. The conference has not been easy; besides differences over food stamps and other nutrition programs, the effort to cut farm assistance and reform the price-support system has led to infighting among and between different commodity groups, fraying traditional alliances with more tension as time has passed without a deal. Despite the problems, all the groups involved, including farm producers and nutrition advocates, want a bill to emerge.

Tuesday, it became clear that the conference had failed, putting off the day of reckoning until at least the end of January—presumably with an extension in the current law to prevent milk from ballooning to $7 a gallon as a New Year's present for Americans.

But even if the conferees find the elusive compromise, it may well fail in the House—losing Democrats because it will cut food stamps too much and Republicans because anything short of the $40 billion cut will not be enough. The compromise may also lose the support of some rural lawmakers who believe that their commodities have been shafted compared with others.

The same day the farm conference came a cropper, we got a mini-budget deal, creating a brief feel-good moment, a sense that maybe compromise is still possible. But with Ed Meese, FreedomWorks, and Heritage Acton leading an effort on the right to scuttle the budget deal, it has its own challenges. The farm bill may have been overshadowed by spending bills, Obamacare, and other higher-profile controversies, but it tells us way too much about the do-nothingest Congress in our lifetime.