Washington Watch: La. delegation deeply divided

Washington Bureau writer Jordan Blum
Washington Bureau writer Jordan Blum

The U.S. House surprisingly — and suddenly — managed to kill its own version of the federal farm bill with the food stamp funding debate exposing the extreme partisan divide in the congressional chamber.

As The Hill publication quoted an angry GOP House member, “We can’t even do a (insert expletive here) farm bill.”

The House bill cuts food stamp funding by more than $20 billion — way too much for many Democrats and not nearly enough for more than 60 Republicans who opposed it. Left in the lurch are Louisiana’s rice, sugar and other commodities farmers.

But let’s look at the partisan divide over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps or SNAP, through the minds of our New Orleans metro area congressmen — U.S. Reps. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, and Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, both of whom did not conduct interviews after the vote and instead issued prepared statements.

Exhibit A: “I am a proud supporter of the American farmer and will continue working to help Louisiana farmers remain competitive, but this bill was much less about farm policy and instead was primarily an expanded welfare bill,” Scalise stated.

Exhibit B: “I stood with my colleagues who voted against this disgraceful bill, which sought to snatch food from the mouths of children, seniors and disabled individuals,” Richmond stated. “It is a shameful day when lawmakers propose policies that harm the very people they claim to represent.”

In Louisiana — one of the nation’s poorest states — about 20 percent of the population qualifies for food stamps. More than half of those are households with children.

SNAP funding has grown significantly over the past decade or so as the nation’s wealth gap grew and the economy faltered in 2008 to the point that SNAP funding now makes up the bulk of the farm bill.

So cutting food stamp funding for those living in poverty — or eliminating the program altogether as some prefer — is considered a GOP priority.

The bipartisan Senate farm bill — backed by both of Louisiana’s Sens. David Vitter, a Republican, and Mary Landrieu, a Democrat — cut food stamp funding by more than $4 billion. Vitter would have preferred greater food stamp cuts but he still backed the bill.

Such compromise though is not apparent in the House, again leaving Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, with egg on his face.

More Democrats were expected to vote for the House bill, but many backtracked after GOP members successfully tacked on an amendment to allow states to also add a new work requirement to food stamp funding. That was apparently the last straw.

Those defections, coupled with the hard-line GOP wing of the House who demanded more food stamp cuts, managed to defeat the bill. It certainly didn’t help that far-right conservative groups such as the Heritage Action and the Club for Growth promised to punish Republicans on their voting scorecards if they backed the bill.

As Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, and fan of the occasional compromise said, “We’ve got a mess and that’s where we find ourselves.” Alexander, who represents a lot of farmers and rural communities, blamed Democratic defections and also said the GOP House leadership is “going to have to make some deals with the ultra-conservatives.”

Alexander said the reality is that making any further food stamp cuts to the House bill would make it virtually impossible to mesh out a deal with the Senate farm bill and actually have it signed into law.

If the House cannot work out a farm bill deal, the odds look even less likely of the Senate bill for an immigration overhaul even standing a chance in the chamber.

So the eyes turn back to Scalise and the staunchly conservative Republican Study Committee he now chairs. The growing House caucus now makes up a majority of House Republicans and has become known for undermining Boehner’s authority.

Scalise was making strides in making his caucus known less for obstructionism and more for getting the House leadership to lean further right to pass bills.

But Thursday’s farm bill vote seemingly represents a regression in that effort.

Maybe the House can still work out a deal or maybe Congress will have to pass another outdated farm bill extension.

Either way, good luck with that, Louisiana farmers.

Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate’s Washington bureau. His email address is jblum@theadvocate.com.