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.