Failure on farm bill may yield political fallout

2012-09-24T04:00:00Z Failure on farm bill may yield political falloutThe Associated Press The Associated Press
September 24, 2012 4:00 am  • 

WASHINGTON — Farm-state members of Congress have campaigned for decades on the back of farm bills delivering election-season subsidies and other goodies to rural voters.

Not this year. The bill is stalled, primarily because House GOP leaders don’t want a noisy fight over food stamps this close to the election. That poses a particular problem for some Republicans in tight races for the Senate or the House who will go home empty-handed as Congress adjourns.

Democrats are gloating.

“It’s something that should have been easy,” says Heidi Heitkamp, the Democrat running against Republican Rep. Rick Berg in a neck-and-neck, open Senate race in North Dakota. “Something that should have been done did not get done.”

Heitkamp and other Democratic challengers are using the farm bill as an example of how they say the Republican-run House is ineffective. Current farm law, which extends subsidy payments to farmers and pays for food stamps, is scheduled to expire Sept. 30, with no new law in place for the first time in recent memory.

In addition to the effect on the North Dakota race, the failure to get a farm bill is affecting the Senate race in Montana and House races in Iowa, South Dakota, Colorado and Illinois.

Farm policy has traditionally been one of the more bipartisan issues on Capitol Hill. It still is, to an extent — the Senate in June passed the five-year farm bill with almost two-thirds of the chamber supporting it. A separate version passed the House Agriculture Committee in July with Republican and Democratic support.

Calling it a farm bill is something of a misnomer. Food stamps make up roughly 80 percent of the costs in both versions. The House would cut them 2 percent, angering many Democrats who don’t want them cut at all and Republicans who say they should be cut more. The Senate version would cut them by one-half of 1 percent.

Since 2008, the food stamp program has more than doubled in cost, to $80 billion a year, driven by high, sustained unemployment, rising food prices and expanded eligibility under President Barack Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus law. Food stamps now help feed roughly 46 million Americans, or one in seven.

It is unclear how angry rural voters will be about the lack of a farm bill. The farm economy has been strong in recent years, and expiration won’t mean an immediate loss of benefits for most farmers. But farm-state members argue that the certainty of federal policy is necessary for farmers making their annual business plans this fall and approaching bankers for loans.

Punting the bill may also mean less money overall. While both chambers’ versions of the bill would save tens of billions of dollars from current spending, the agriculture committees may be asked to save even more as budgets tighten further next year.

“They are concerned there will be fewer resources if we do it next year, so they worry it will hurt their crop insurance,” Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said of farmers in his state, where he and Rep. Tom Latham both face serious challenges from Democrats.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said the legislation has turned into “a food stamp bill” that has bogged down because of both the presidential and congressional campaigns.

“There’s not 218 votes to pass it,” Huelskamp told reporters. “It’s going to be very tough to do that, even in a lame-duck session.”

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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