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Farm bill falls victim to polarization, gridlock in Washington

Courtesy House Agriculture Committee/Facebook

If it seems like Congress just can’t get the farm bill done, well… that’s because it can’t.

All year long, Washington lawmakers have been saying they want to pass a full five-year farm bill. But even though leaders of the House-Senate conference committee say they are close, they have acknowledged it just won’t get done this year. They’re pushing it off until January.

The inability to settle on a farm bill illustrates the deep divisions that have become the norm on Capitol Hill. The massive food and agriculture package used to be relatively easy thanks to bipartisan and urban-rural alliances. But this year, progress was a slow slog. 

A nine-month extension passed in January bought some time. This summer, the Senate passed its bill, but the House didn’t. Then the House sent two bills to the conference committee, one for agriculture and the other for food stamps

The conference committee charged with drafting a final bill met off and on for months. The main negotiators were the leaders from each party of the Agriculture Committees of each house – Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Sen. Thad Cochran from the Senate, and Rep. Colin Peterson and Rep. Frank Lucas from the House. Despite reporting progress, the four lawmakers were unable to finish the job before the House adjourned for the year on Friday.

There are three fundamental reasons today’s lawmakers have such a hard time getting the job done. Iowa State University political scientist David Peterson says one is the striking chasm separating today’s Washington politicians.

“We’ve seen an increasing polarization within Congress, in particular we’ve seen the modern Republican Party move further to the right,” Peterson said. “The Democrats have moved some to the left, but really what is driving it is the Republicans have moved further to the right.”

That leaves fewer players drawn toward the middle, where compromises are forged. And it takes a majority of both bodies, plus the president, to enact laws.

“The problem we’ve got right now is that the amount of things that a majority of the House, and in particular  a majority of the Republicans—a majority of the majority party in the House—the Democratic Senate, and the Democratic president can agree on is vanishingly small,” Peterson said.

On top of polarization and gridlock, add the lack of earmarks. Peterson says in times past, Congressional leaders could use those small, very specific addendums to sway neutral lawmakers to their side of a bill. But in the last decade, he says, Congress got rid of earmarks. Now deadlines are a main driver pushing Congress to act, though they haven’t been very effective. To be sure, it’s not just the farm bill suffering from this. Everything in Congress is, but the farm bill’s history of wending its way through relatively easily makes the delay more striking. 

“This is a very, very visible policy that has really dramatic effects on a lot of people, particularly a lot of people in this area,” Peterson said. “And so it’s more visible. But it’s the same all around.”

The farm bill negotiations were full of stops and starts. Just before Thanksgiving, Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King, a conference committee member, remained optimistic a deal could be reached by Christmas.

“It’s more than 50/50 in my mind right now, the momentum of this,” King said at the time. “There really was a sincere effort to get it done by Thanksgiving, but we didn’t get there.”

Now Christmas and New Year’s Day are out, too.

The word is: a new, five-year farm bill could come in January. How likely is that? Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), a member of the agriculture committee, says he’d be worried if another one-year extension were on the table. But that’s not what the House leadership is calling for.

“It must mean that the Speaker has confidence that we’re getting close to an agreement,” Grassley said.

But we’re poised to enter 2014 just as we did 2013: waiting for a new farm bill. 

More:  Congress still playing the farm bill game

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.
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