The Speaker’s caucus is split six ways from Sunday on the farm bill. Tea Party conservatives are prepared to fall on their sword to affect more than the $16 billion in food stamp cuts called for in the House bill; moderates are loathe to accept any more than the $4 billion in savings contained in the Senate version out of fear the GOP will be skewered for balancing the budget on the backs of poor, hungry children.
Rural Republicans are desperate to enact a farm bill. They want to avoid the chaos associated with failure to renew commodity programs that start to expire after September 30, and they need to demonstrate they are coming to the aid of farmers who are threatened by a potentially devastating drought.
Republicans representing urban and suburban districts are less than enthralled with commodity programs which they contend enrich big corporate farms at the expense of small producers, consumers, taxpayers and the environment. They demand more surgery on farm subsidies in order to increase funding for conservation and local food production programs.
To make matters worse, the GOP is divided on a commodity-by-commodity basis. Republicans representing peanut, rice and cotton growers are at odds with their colleagues from corn, wheat and soybean producing areas over the design and level of remaining subsidies. Divisions exist even within individual commodities. Republicans from dairy regions in the West, Mid-West and New England disagree on a new program to manage milk supplies.
Democrats, meanwhile, lie in wait to capitalize on whatever course of action Republicans take. Their minority status affords them the luxury of sitting back while the GOP self-destructs over the farm bill in plain sight of voters just weeks before election day. Should the House Republican leadership block floor consideration, Democrats will accuse Republicans of playing roulette with rural America. Either way, Democrats figure they win.
By declining to bring the farm bill to the floor, the Speaker could sidestep an embarrassing public display of a dysfunctional Republican majority. But the cost could be high. Uncertainty over the fate of commodity and disaster relief programs could slow down the economies of rural areas threatening Republican candidates up and down the ballot in states like Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota.
By bringing the farm bill to the floor in a timely manner, the Speaker could escape charges of turning his back on rural constituencies. In doing so, however, he would lose control of the process, exposing the farm bill to wholesale revision on the House floor. Such a tack would pave the way for a conference where leaders of the two agriculture committees will be eager to agree to a bipartisan bill that deflects further cuts to nutrition and farm programs in the sequestration process.
A third option would be to wait until mid-September to bring the bill to the floor under a rule that would limit the time for open debate—a rule, Republicans could argue, was necessitated by the press of other legislative business. The bet here is that Democrats could be lured into protracted fights over food stamps and other issues, in which case Republicans could point to the intransigence of liberals for blocking passage of the legislation. With the September 30 deadline fast approaching, the majority leadership would then be in a position to justify pulling the farm bill and offering a short-term extension of current farm programs into the new year.
This approach has downsides too. Additional spending cuts might be necessary to address procedural challenges, and folks of all stripes would howl that Congress is kicking the can down the road yet again.
The Speaker had hoped that either the Senate or the House Agriculture Committee would bail him out of having to deal with the farm bill. That hope has been displaced by the grim prospect of choosing from a menu of unpalatable strategies. Mr. .Boehner will be forced to roll the dice in a high-stakes crap game, and he will shoulder full responsibility for the impact of his decision on the nation, his party, its presidential nominee, and his own leadership role in the House. The Speaker must feel a migraine coming on.
Leonard is a former senior staff member for the Senate Agriculture Committee and former special assistant to President Reagan for food and agriculture. He is currently a senior consultant on agriculture issues with Prime Policy Group in Washington, DC.