John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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Farm Bill Dies. Can It Come Back From the Dead?

Posted on June 21, 2013
farming

One of the reasons Denny Hastert followed the “majority of the majority” rule was pretty simple:  He couldn’t trust the Democrats.

The nature of the House of Representatives is to allow the Majority to eventually get its ways.  Rules are put in place to protect the minority’s rights, but in the House, unlike in the Senate, the Majority rules.

Sometimes finding out what the majority really stands for is difficult, and through much of the 20th century, constructing a majority coalition transcended party membership.

Southern Democrats would join with Republicans on some issues, while Republicans would sometimes join with liberal Democrats on other issues.   For example, Southern Democrats and Republicans tended to agree on defense issues, while Republicans joined with liberal Democrats to push through civil rights legislation.

Our farm economy is intimately intertwined with the government policy and has been for decades.  Part of that is for national security reasons.  Nothing is more important to our nation’s security than a secure food supply.  Part of that is for risk mitigation.  No matter how hard Sue Palka of the local Fox News affiliate might try, it is hard to predict the weather, especially years in advance.  And part of that is to preserve civil order.  Poor people who have ready access to food are far less  likely to cause civil strife.

National farm policy, as it has evolved, poses a complete nightmare to economic theorists and political philosophers.  It is amalgam of compromises between big city ward bosses and rural politicians, between dairy farmers and ice cream companies, between Grocery Manufacturers and peanut farmers, between King Cotton and Midwest Aggies, between sugar producers and candy manufacturers.  Commodity exchanges, insurance companies, banks big and small, the Federal Reserve, and the global economy all pay close attention to what happens in the Farm bill.

Some of these interests would like to see dramatic change, but most are pretty content with the status quo.

It might seem pretty simple to go to the grocery store and buy some eggs, some milk and stuff for the kids, but government policy is involved every step of the way.   That may drive some free-market purists absolutely bonkers, but that’s the way it has been for decades.

Constructing a Farm bill to please all of these constituencies is difficult, to say the least.  Constructing a Farm bill to please of these constituencies as you cut $40 billion is just about impossible.

John Boehner and his leadership team learned that the hard way last night.  I examined the list of those who voted no.  Some voted no because they vote no on just about every bill that spends money.  That’s what they do, and they can’t be counted on to be helpful in any way.  ( On a sidenote, they should spend the rest of their careers on the Small Business Committee.

Some voted no because they didn’t want to explain to their constituents why Republicans were cutting tens of billions of dollars from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (or SNAP), just as they were provided wealthy farmers plenty assistance.  To them, voting no was a vote of self-protection.

Some voted no because they didn’t think their constituents were taken care of properly in this bill.  Some voted no despite the fact that their amendment was not only made in order but passed (the leadership should have a frank discussion with that member).

Several voted no despite the fact that they were Committee Chairman.   Frank Lucas should have a direct conversation with his fellow colleagues.  “You voted against my bill.  I am going to do everything I can to make sure my aggies kill whatever crap your committee puts out.”

Colin Peterson promised to deliver 40 Democratic votes, but could only muster 26, which still wouldn’t have been enough to pass the bill (although if all 40 had voted for it, the Republican Leadership probably could have twisted enough arms to muscle it over the finish line).

It is hard to blame Peterson for this.  He is not the Minority leader; he is only the minority leader of the Committee.   And the purpose the minority is not to necessarily further the goals of the Majority.  That’s the responsibility of the Majority.

John Boehner has a choice of three different paths.  He can either just take up the Senate bill and let a coalition of Democrats and Aggie Republicans vote to send it to the President.  He can punt and let the programs all expire.  Or he can work to pass another House bill (either tweaked or completely re-written to appeal to more conservatives).

Any time a bill goes down in the House of Representatives, the punditocracy makes it a referendum on the leadership, but that isn’t necessarily the case this time around.   Boehner wanted this bill to pass, but it wasn’t like he really loved it.  As a matter of fact, he just about never votes for Farm bills, as a free-market guy, he doesn’t love any of the programs.

Where he goes from here will teach his colleagues some valuable lessons.  If he chooses to do nothing (which is possible), his colleagues will learn that when you do nothing, nothing changes.   Sometimes inertia is a good thing, but sometimes when you pass up the chance to reform a government program, things get worse.  That could be the case here.

If he chooses to take up the Senate bill (which is probably not that likely, but you never know), he can teach his colleagues what happens when you let the Senate take the lead.  Much less reform and much more money being spent.

If he chooses to try, try again, he will have to teach his colleagues that by voting against the leadership and against the Committee, there will be a price to pay. How he delivers that message is up to him, but unless members are compelled to change their mind by some show of force, there really is little reason for them to do so.

Not passing the Farm bill the first time around is not the end of the world.  It is a hard bill to pass with many competing interests.  But if this is a harbinger of things to come, and the House Republican Conference learns nothing from this lesson, it could be a sign that Republicans are in serious danger of losing their majority.  They were sent here to govern, not to point fingers.