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Moderates need to hold firm against radical right on Farm Bill


What’s a moderate to do? That question confronts disaffected members of majority parties again and again. When one’s party brings to the floor a cringe-worthy bill, should members grit their teeth and vote for it, in the hope that it will improve in conference? Or should they stand their ground and insist that they will only vote for legislation that they can plausibly defend?

{mosads}House Republicans are likely to face just that question this week when the much-delayed Farm Bill returns for its second act. The Freedom Caucus scuttled the Farm Bill the first time around, seeking leverage to bring Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s (R-Va.) immigration bill to the floor. With an apparent agreement to call up that legislation this week, the House Farm Bill could return to the floor as early as Thursday.


This proposal is a radical break from past farm bills. It makes savage cuts to nutrition assistance, camouflaged as “work requirements” despite the Congressional Budget Office’s findings that the promised work programs will not be built to scale even after a decade. It includes an intrusive new federal database of low-income people that makes their personal information vulnerable to devastating abuse. And it adds numerous anti-environmental forestry provisions to the generous favors done for the timber industry in this Spring’s omnibus appropriations law.

When the Farm Bill does return, many observers are simply assuming that Republican moderates will fall into line as they did last time. But a lot has happened since the Farm Bill was last up, and it gives moderates every reason to reconsider.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), a solid conservative, reached across the aisle to Ranking Minority Member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), to craft a bipartisan bill that their committee reported out with only a single dissenting vote. Their bill is short on drama, and the effort to reach bipartisan consensus required both sides to postpone preferred initiatives. It is, however, a solid bill that prioritizes Congress’s obligations to our farmers over scoring ideological points. And it is clear proof that bipartisanship remains possible if members are willing to work at it.

If House Republican moderates vote for their chamber’s dreadful legislation, they will be giving it the same dignity as the Senate’s version of the Farm Bill. With that will come some presumption that each has the support of its chamber and should contribute roughly equally to the conference committee’s final product.

Should that happen, the immediate result is likely be either a bad farm bill or an impasse. Delayed farm bills are never a good idea: farmers need to know the rules that will govern them for the next five years to make planting and business decisions. But this is a particularly bad time to leave farmers in the lurch with all the uncertainty they already face from the looming trade war.

Granting the extreme House Farm Bill equal dignity with the Senate Farm Bill also would send a terrible message about the wages of bipartisanship. Even if senators ultimately do manage to shed the extreme House nutrition assistance cuts and anti-environmental forestry provisions, that may consume so much political capital required that they must surrender on other provisions important to them. The obvious lesson is that bipartisanship is punished, not rewarded.

Moderates do not need to vote for this proposal. Whether or not this version passes the House, Congress will eventually enact a farm bill, and moderates will have the opportunity to vote for it on final passage. Members of both parties want a farm bill too much for any other outcome to be possible. That task will be far easier, however, if both chambers arrive in conference with credible, pragmatic legislation enabling productive discussion.

If the House rejects this extreme legislation, the Agriculture Committee will huff and puff for a few days, but then it will get down to the business that it should have been doing all along: crafting a sensible, mainstream farm bill rather that prioritizes farmers over ideologues. That is what will “move the process along.”

“No” votes do not get much safer than this. The Farm Bill’s ideological valence with the Republican base is weaker than pretty much any other major piece of legislation likely to come before the House this year. Members that nonetheless go along with this terrible bill will have little to show constituents that their independent judgment is improving Congress.

Under any plausible election scenario — whether Republicans keep their majority by a hair or Democrats gain tenuous control of the House — moderates of both parties will hold the balance of power. More radical members will try to bully them into voting for more extreme bills, presumably with the promise of greater moderation in conference. If moderates succumb to those arguments and pass this dreadful bill, they will be encouraging that sort of high-pressure brinksmanship to continue alienating them from their constituents.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Tags Agricultural economics Agricultural subsidies Bob Goodlatte Debbie Stabenow Government Pat Roberts United States farm bill
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