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Policy: Entitlements

House GOP passes farm subsidies --- without food stamps

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Politics,Congress,Timothy P. Carney,Columnists,House of Representatives,Agriculture,Entitlements,Big Government,Lobbying,Farm Bill,Food Stamps,Subsidies

House Republicans passed a subsidy-packed farm bill that was arguably less conservative than the one they voted down in June.

What happened? How did the GOP leadership whip rank-and-file members into line, including almost all conservative members? And why did leadership do it?

Here's the story, as told by House GOP leadership aides, individual members, and the conservative activists who tried and failed to reform the farm bill:

In late June, the farm bill was defeated in the House, 234 to 195.

Conservatives disliked the bill for many reasons.

The legislation continued the nearly indefensible sugar protectionism program, which risks taxpayer money and drives up domestic sugar prices (killing U.S. jobs in the soft drink and candy industry). The bill also expanded the federal crop insurance program, which subsidizes banks and farmers and sticks taxpayers with the risk.

Also, conservatives didn't like the $743 billion in food stamp spending in the bill. For one thing, conservatives wanted to reform and pare back food stamps. Also, they didn't like food stamps being linked with farm policy. So 62 Republicans voted no, handing another parliamentary defeat to House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Whip Kevin McCarthy.

Those Republicans who voted no trained most of their public critique on the food stamp provisions. Conservative and free-market activists in Washington said that farm subsidies and food stamps should be split. Heritage Action demanded the split.

This demand gave the House leadership the opening that it needed. This month word spread on Capitol Hill that Republican leaders would bring to the floor a farm-subsidies-only bill, nearly identical to the farm portion of the measure defeated in June.

The only difference: The crop-insurance subsidy and the sugar subsidies would be permanent under the new bill.

So, why would conservative Republicans support a more permanent version of the farm bill they already voted down?

The instant reaction, after the bill passed, was that Republicans really never objected to crop subsidies, but they only disliked food stamps. Liberal writer Matt Yglesias wrote of the 216 GOP aye votes, "they don't have a problem with spending $195 billion over ten years, they just want to make sure it goes to the right people. Not poor people, in other words."

This harsh and simplistic assessment isn't totally wrong. There's an element of neo-Calvinism in the American Right -- abhorrence at giving money to the undeserving poor.

But there were more important causes beneath the surface.

GOP leaders started whipping for the bill when they returned from the July 4 break. The leaders held "several closed-door meetings," according to one House Republican. "Cantor was just chewing people out," the member told me.

One of Cantor's chief arguments, according to sources in leadership, the rank and file, and off Capitol Hill, was basically: We changed the bill how you wanted us to, by separating it from food stamps, and so now you'd better vote for it.

This standard is widely held on Capitol Hill. Why should leadership change a bill to please you if you're going to vote it down anyway? Some Republicans who saw the farm bill as flawed still voted aye, out of respect for the leadership's meeting their demand to split the bills.

Some Republicans also argued that the new bill provides a better starting point from which to reform farm subsidies in the future. Not being tied to Democrats' beloved food stamps, a future farm bill would need more conservative votes in order to pass -- and thus it would have to be more conservative.

Also, making the bill permanent could be considered preferable to the status quo, where the fallback, if current policies expire, is the Agricultural Act of 1949 -- a horrible law by anyone's standards.

Finally, House leaders promised conservatives that they would try to insert into the final House-Senate bill a provision cutting off the wealthiest farmers from some subsidies.

That's how the leaders won over the rank and file. The next question is: Why all the arm-twisting to pass the bill?

One reason, according to a GOP member: "The reputation of the leaders. They felt like they would have been embarrassed" if they couldn't recover from the June farm bill defeat.

Also, many House Republicans are, at heart, ag guys. Leadership wanted to keep them happy.

Finally, the powerful farm lobby -- rice, cotton, and peanut interests employ some heavy K Street hitters -- has serious pull within the GOP.

House Republican leaders have had their stumbles, but they can still pull out a win now and then.

Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.

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