Our Views: Lessons from lost farm bill

Louisiana’s delegation in Congress split over the five-year farm bill defeated in the House.

On the first and key vote, three members of our delegation voted for the bill and three against. But it was not a split of parties or even of ideologies: The three against included two prominent conservatives and the single Democrat, Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans.

It was one of the ideological incongruities of the debate over the farm bill.

For one thing, the farm bill proposed by the House Agriculture Committee was a more conservative product than a parallel bill in the Senate. The House bill sought $2 billion a year in cuts to food stamps, aka the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but also included what many Democrats considered a harmful work requirement for food stamps.

The cuts, though, weren’t enough for many House conservatives who bucked the GOP leadership in the final vote. Joining them were Reps. Steve Scalise, of New Orleans, and John Fleming, of Minden.

And another incongruity: The House bill favors Southern farmers, which is why it was backed by three other conservatives in the Louisiana delegation. They are Reps. Charles Boustany, of Lafayette, Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge, and Rodney Alexander, of Quitman.

Each has ties with the leadership or subcommittee chairmanships, so there were also reasons of internal House politics to vote for the bill.

But in the final analysis, the fall of the comprehensive farm bill has lessons about the nature of ideological politics in today’s Congress. For decades past, the farm bill was a combat of regions, not of parties or of ideological causes.

Southern farmers wanted protection for peanuts or sugar cane, but Midwesterners were more concerned for row crops. Everybody wanted subsidies for their sectional interests.

In an age of sectional division over the farm bill, compromise was possible — in part because a little extra money here or there could mollify particular interests.

Now, we are in an age of huge budget deficits that require reductions in direct farm supports. To give the defeated bill its due, it would have reduced federal spending on farm programs, although Democrats are right to say it’s somewhat cruel to cut food stamps in the midst of a struggling economy.

On the whole, we agree with Louisiana’s agriculture commissioner, Republican Mike Strain, that the bill should have been passed. Ultimately, the food stamp reductions likley would have been moderated in consultation with the Senate.

On a second vote, the House approved basically on party lines a bill that leaves out food stamps and instead only funds farm programs. It’s not clear how this will work out legislatively, and perhaps a House-Senate compromise will result.

Any federal program requires some stability to operate properly, and the comprehensive five-year bill — instead of one-year extensions — would have set policy in a more orderly way.

The meltdown of the comprehensive farm bill shows the difficulty of passing what used to be relatively straightforward political deals. The divisions in our House delegation, even on a farm bill that is favorable to Louisiana interests, are not a good sign.