The next battle in the GOP civil war opened Wednesday as members of the House and Senate Agriculture committees sat down to hammer out differences over two versions of the Farm Bill. The massive piece of agriculture and nutrition legislation usually sails through both chambers, but it has become the latest litmus test for powerful conservative interest groups to decide whether individual Republican lawmakers are really conservative enough.
As farmers and ranchers in conservative districts have urged their congressmen to pass the bill this year, Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, and Americans for Prosperity have all pushed conservatives to vote against it, tagging it as wasteful, bloated spending. The decision by the three groups to label the Farm Bill as a “key vote” on their legislative scorecard over the summer led to a rebellion among House Republicans that sank the legislation until House leaders split it into two pieces, with agriculture funding moving forward and nutrition assistance, in the form of food stamps, getting slashed by $40 billion in a separate bill.
Rarely mentioned in the political sparring over the Farm Bill are the farmers themselves, who have long supported their own Republican members of Congress. Now they are becoming collateral damage in the ongoing battle between the party’s warring factions that has ground crucial legislation like the Farm Bill and immigration reform almost to a halt and left some farmers worrying about their futures.
“Most of our members would be quick to point out that frustration is an apt word that they’re feeling,” says Dale Moore, executive director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau. “You throw in the budget debates that have tied a lot of things up in knots, it gets so people are saying they just have to see something get done.”
Political pressures, especially on Republicans, are making a tough Farm Bill even harder to pass, Moore says. “The issue is Republican members who get targeted as not being conservative enough,” he says. “They’re already driving on the stripes on the right-hand side of the road just before you before you get to the shoulder. How much farther to the right do you have to get?”
If that answer is left up to Heritage Action, members need to get a lot further to the right.
When the Farm Bill conference committee was announced in October, Heritage Action blasted out every GOP committee member’s Heritage Action scorecard and slammed the conference process for “combining two bad pieces of legislation [that] will result in one bad piece of legislation.”
Last week, the Heritage Foundation sent out a blast to supporters asserting that the Farm Bill would cost more than 2009’s $780 billion stimulus package and suggesting that the legislation be called “the Food Stamp bill,” as 80 percent of the funds in the bill would go to pay for nutrition assistance for low-income and unemployed Americans. “The costs are just one example of how the farm bill ignores taxpayers, consumers, and virtually all Americans.”
But Moore rejects that description and says both versions of the farm bill include spending reforms and cuts to key programs. “There’s been real money put on the table in terms of savings that would be directed toward deficit reduction,” Moore says. “In terms of savings, the agriculture community has done its part.”
Regardless of the substance of the bill, if Heritage Action does score it, GOP staffers say the group could make it all but impossible to pass.
“There probably are going to be some problems,” one GOP staffer says. “Heritage and Club for Growth were really pushing people around during the shutdown. Once they put a key vote out, it’s tough.”
But the staffer added that Heritage Action in particular may be on the verge of abusing its influence with GOP members and that the Farm Bill vote could be the moment even conservative members break out on their own and away from outside groups’ demands.
“There’s a feeling among Republicans that they are a little too aggressive on some of these, like Heritage Action is pushing its own agenda there,” says the staffer. “You want to maintain pressure, but you don’t want to alienate the people that you’re pressuring.”
Heritage Action hasn’t said if it will “key vote” the final version of the bill, but Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action, told The Daily Beast, “It is extremely difficult to envision a Farm Bill emerging from that conference committee that isn’t larded up with corporate welfare.”