Several months after GOP conservatives held up the farm bill reauthorization in pursuit of cuts to food stamps and farm subsidies, the GOP leadership is preparing to pass a bill that offers minor cuts but largely avoids the hot-button fiscal debate.
The farm bill has historically combined massive farm subsidies, popular with farmers, a key rural GOP voting block, with food stamps for the poor, popular with Democrats. The combination typically creates a legislative juggernaut that overwhelms opposition.
Last summer, under pressure from fiscal conservatives, the House passed a separate farm bill without the food stamps included. This left the bill without Democratic support, leaving it to die in the Senate.
The cuts to the food stamp program in the new House bill amount to a 1 percent cut, or $800 million cut from an $80 billion annual program, which the Wall Street Journal reported last summer had skyrocketed since 2008, growing by 70 percent to a record 47.8 million in December 2012. As of this month, food stamp rolls remained at 47.4 million.
The other half of the juggernaut, farm subsidies, have long been criticized by fiscal hawks, who argue that the myth of the rural family farm has long since been supplanted by agricultural business interests and that taxpayers should not be subsidizing special interests purely in pursuit of votes.
The political oddity of farm subsidies are captured by Time, which says that the current House compromise cuts would "eliminate a $4.5 billion-a-year farm subsidy called direct payments, which are paid to farmers whether they farm or not. The bill would continue to heavily subsidize major crops — corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton — while shifting many of those subsidies toward more politically defensible insurance programs. That means farmers would have to incur losses before they received a payout."
Putting an end to paying people not to farm seems like a political no brainer but it counts for a compromise in the politics of the farm bill. The dilemma facing the Republicans is that without support from agricultural states, their path to a governing majority disappears. In an extensive analysis of the GOP's struggles in the farm belt, The Atlantic's Molly Ball asked Bob Stallman, president of the Farm Bureau, what would happen to GOP support if the party's conservatives got tough on farm subsidies.
"This isn't the first time in history that political parties have had schisms," he said. "Sometimes, if they don't come back together, you have new political parties." He drew a parallel with the realignment of the South from Democratic to Republican dominance in the past several decades. "If the Republican Party moves to a place where it no longer mirrors the viewpoints of any segment of rural America," he said, "there will be a switch, I would predict."
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