May 20, 2024

Farm & Food File: ‘Appeasing hardliners’ threatens farm bill passage

When Congress returns to Capitol Hill after its Fourth of July district “work” period — 17 days long for the House and 16 days for the Senate — members face two enormous tasks with little time to complete either.

On Sept. 30, the 2018 farm bill expires and, simultaneously, the federal government needs a new budget in place to open its doors Oct. 1.

It will take a mighty effort for either to get done. In the three months between July 1 and Oct. 1, the House is scheduled to be in session just 24 days and the Senate for 30 days.

The biggest, most difficult fight will be passing the 2024 federal budget. In a good year, much of that wonky, tedious work goes on behind the scenes as key committee chairs, ranking members and staff debate, schmooze and compromise to hammer out a spending plan few members like but most can swallow.

In a bad year, it can be hand-to-hand combat that often turns into a multitrillion-dollar game of chicken with a government shutdown as the ultimate threat.

And 2023 is a bad year — but not for the usual partisan reasons. Instead, this battle features House Republicans warring with other House Republicans over how deep to cut 2024 federal spending despite the debt-raising deal hammered out between Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy and President Joe Biden in late May.

“Mr. McCarthy and his leadership team,” reported the New York Times June 15, “blindsided Democrats … by setting allocations for the 12 annual spending bills at 2022 levels, about $119 billion less than the $1.59 trillion allowed for in the (May) agreement to raise the debt ceiling.”

McCarthy also blindsided most Republicans — especially in the Senate — who thought they had a deal with the White House that gave Congress the green light to get both a budget bill and farm bill done before the Oct. 1 deadline. Not so.

Now everyone is stuck as moderate Republicans try to remove a monkey wrench thrown into the already-creaky gears of a deeply divided government by a handful of hard right House Republican monkey-wrenchers.

And there are no easy ideas on how to do it. In fact, reported Politico recently, “GOP hardliners are still fuming over the deal … McCarthy struck with … Biden to raise the debt limit earlier this month, especially a provision that could expand the number of people on federal food aid.”

Ah, yes, food aid or SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, that now gobbles up 80% of all farm bill dollars.

Dems see it as an integral part of federal programming to support families in need; hardline Republicans view it as a too-costly, fraud-ridden program — despite the lack of confirming evidence — that promotes government dependency.

Pragmatic members in Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike — not to mention almost every farm and commodity group — see SNAP as the political bridge to bring broad urban support to government farm programs. Without those nonfarm votes, most political handicappers agree, there would be no farm bill.

Today’s same antifood aid tactic was used by Republican hardliners during the 2018 farm bill fight. The results, reminds Politico, “helped to sink a partisan House GOP farm bill on the floor. It took another seven months to get the final bill” done.

Importantly, it wasn’t Democrats that propelled the 2018 bill to victory; it was the “Republican-majority Senate (that) eventually stripped the House GOP’s steep SNAP restrictions from the final legislation” that delivered its eventual passage.

This time around, however, the Dems run the Senate and their Ag Committee boss, Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow, recently announced that “Congress is ‘done’ discussing SNAP work requirements in the wake of the (McCarthy-Biden) debt limit talks.”

Stabenow’s message didn’t register with Speaker McCarthy. “In private,” reported Politico in mid-June, “the speaker has told fellow Republicans that … to appease hardliners, the party will need to at least push for stricter work requirements.”

Appeasing “hardliners” may allow McCarthy to maintain his tenuous grip on his job, but it won’t make any farmer’s or rancher’s job any easier if there’s no farm bill come Oct. 1.

Alan Guebert

Alan Guebert

Farm & Food File is published weekly through the U.S. and Canada. Source material and contact information are posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.