Democrats are using the stalled farm bill to hammer their GOP opponents in congressional races across the country.
The legislation, which provides subsidy and aid to farmers nationwide, as well as authorizes funding for a number of nutritional programs, expires on Sept. 30. The Senate was able to pass a bill, but House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said late last week that the House would have to wait until after the election to pick back up on the legislation, despite a flurry of last-minute activity from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in an attempt to bring it to the floor.
Democrats in states where agriculture plays a large role have been quick to launch attacks on their opponents that aimed to hang congressional inaction around their necks. Most recently, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee launched a pair of ads targeting Republican Rep. Rick Berg, running for Senate in North Dakota, where agriculture remains the largest industry, on the failed farm bill.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) skipped out on a fundraiser with New Jersey Gov. and GOP darling Chris Christie to return to Washington to push for a bill. Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) was one of the first lawmakers to sign a discharge petition to force the bill to the floor for a vote, and spoke out at a bipartisan rally meant to draw attention to congressional inaction.
Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), running for Senate against Sen. Jon Tester (D), and Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), who's in a tough reelection bid, also signed the discharge petition, as did Berg, who's locked in a tough battle for Senate against Democrat Heidi Heitkamp. Berg, too, roundly criticized Republican leadership for the impasse, and led an effort to spur the GOP whip team into a discussion on getting the bill passed.
“House leadership has handled this entire farm bill situation poorly since it should have happened months ago,” he said in a statement issued after Boehner punted on the bill, adding that efforts to get the measure to the House floor “won’t stop until this happens.” His efforts won him a laudatory editorial from one of North Dakota's largest newspapers, the Fargo Forum, which praised him for his work on the legislation.
Although Democrats are likely to continue to hammer their GOP opponents on the bill up to the November elections, some Republicans insist it’s not an issue that will move voters. Dan Conston, communications director for the Congressional Leadership Fund, said that gridlock over the bill might turn out to be a political advantage for some Republicans.
“I think, in some ways, it is an opportunity for our own candidates to show that they are pushing Congress to act. It shows a separation, where they're able to locally distinguish themselves,” he said.
At a time when Congress is posting record-low approval ratings, it behooves candidates to come out in opposition to the establishment entrenched in Washington, and the farm bill is one issue on which some Republicans have been able to do that. A spokesman for Noem, running against Democrat Matt Varilek, pointed out that the farm bill was an issue where the congresswoman “hasn’t been afraid to take on her own leadership.”
University of Iowa Political Science Professor Tim Hagle pointed out, however, that inaction on the farm bill could have an effect in races where it plays into a larger narrative.
“[Democrat Christie] Vilsack has been saying King hasn’t been successful at getting things done in Congress — that’s one line of argument” where the farm bill could play, he said.
King was the only member of the Iowa delegation not to sign the discharge petition, and Vilsack has made a point to hammer him on the issue, bringing it up multiple times during a recent debate. King has been endorsed by the conservative Club for Growth, which warned members against voting for the petition.
Hagle also said that Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), running in an incumbent-vs.-incumbent race against Latham, could target Latham for the farm bill’s failure, because Latham is close with Boehner — a connection Boswell’s campaign manager, Kevin McTigue, pointed to in his criticism of his colleague on the issue.
"Rather than doing photo-ops or speaking at the Farm Bill Now rally, Congressman Latham should put his influence and friendship with Speaker Boehner to use to get this Farm Bill passed,” he said in a release issued after Latham voted to adjourn Congress before a bill had been passed.
But Hagle added that those who are paying close attention to the farm bill are likely to have already made up their minds on whom they’ll be voting for come November. And those tuned in to the farm bill are likely to have followed its passage through Congress and understand the political maneuvering in ways that attack ads often obscure.
Tyler Schott, a Montana Republican operative, said that that familiarity with the issues in states like Montana and North Dakota, where farmers and ranchers experience a delay in farm bill passage every five years, means Democratic attacks might not stick.
“Montanans know Congressman Rehberg has been pushing his own party leaders to address the issue and when it comes down to it, Democrat finger-pointing for political gain won’t get the bill passed,” he said.
But unlike a number of other pieces of legislation caught in the political crossfire this election season, the farm bill has a tangible, substantial effect, and it remains on the minds of voters in states where agriculture constitutes a large portion of the economy — especially in those states experiencing drought conditions. Varilek, Noem’s Democratic opponent, said that’s why he’ll continue to hammer Noem on her inability to whip more freshman Republicans to join her on the discharge petition.
“The fiscal cliff, tax increases, the bailout, that’s all troubling to people — but the farm bill is really hitting home in a concrete way, especially with the drought. It’s just so irresponsible to think that they didn't do it before the August recess, that they didn't bother even to pass an extension. That just takes the irresponsibility to new heights,” he said.