Farm Bill Fails for First Time in 40 Years (or Ever?)

It what some characterize as a triumph (and others as a sad indictment on the state of U.S. parliamentary politics), the U.S. House of Representatives failed to pass the farm bill yesterday (roll call here, 62 Republicans and 172 Democrats voting “no”). According to Charles Abbott of Reuters, it was the first time in 40 years (or possibly in history) that the House has failed to pass a farm bill.

It seems that many GOPers voted against it because the food stamp cuts were not big enough, and most Dems who voted no did so because the food stamp cuts were too big. Good luck trying to square that circle.

The Hill and Politico have more on the political fallout, none of which I particularly care about. Whoever is to “blame” (personally, I’d like to bestow Presidential Medals of Freedom on the culprits), it is clear that the old urban-rural alliance, and the idea that you can build coalitions by loading a bill with “something for everyone,” is fraying.

For too long, American taxpayers and consumers have been burdened by the scourge of special interest politics that sees farm bills passed more-or-less intact time after time. And the reason, quite frankly, is that things could be even worse if the farm bills fail to pass. One of the ag lobby’s best friends in Congress, Rep. Collin Petersen (D-MN), exposed the extortion threat behind this quinquennial circus in part of his remarks Wednesday:

Mr. PETERSON….When I was chairman and did the last farm bill, we maintained the permanent law, and we did it for a reason, which is that it is very hard to get these farm bills done, and sometimes you need some motivation to get people to move. That’s the main reason we left it there. [From the Congressional Record, pH3860. HT: Scott Lincicome, emphasis added]

That’s the key to ending the role of the federal government in agriculture once and for all: getting that “permanent” 1949 law off the books. It would be a hard legislative slog, for sure. A narrower (but still worthy) amendment by Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), striking only the dairy price support part of the 1949 Act, failed 309-112. (On the other hand, an amendment stripping out the supply management aspect of the proposed new dairy policy passed 291-135.) But so long as this law is part of the national legislative fabric, we’ll have a dairy cliff (or some other commodity-themed cliff) every five years.

Where to go from here? Maybe the House will pass another extention of the current farm bill (itself an extension of the 2008 farm bill, which was supposed to expire in 2012), trying to buy time. Or maybe they will try to cut food stamps even more in an attempt to pass the bill with Republican support more or less alone (though that would presumably be vetoed by President Obama). Or, possibly, the House will not pass a bill at all and go straight to conference with the Senate. (The Washington Post’s Brad Plumer goes into more detail on that possibility.) I don’t know. What I do know is that Congress will more or less be tinkering at the edges unless and until that permanent law is repealed once and for all.