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In farm bill’s collapse, some see an ill omen

Updated: 2013-06-22T03:00:48Z

By DAVE HELLING

The Kansas City Star

Republicans and Democrats struggled Friday to assess the full damage caused by the stunning collapse of a new farm bill just 24 hours earlier.

The House of Representatives’ rejection of the nearly $1 trillion farm- and food-subsidy measure will mean uncertainty for farmers and ranchers, they said, and delay needed reforms designed to lessen the burden on taxpayers.

But the bill’s crushing defeat — led by a coalition of conservative Republicans and Democrats — also suggests congressional dysfunction has reached a new apex, they said, a problem that threatens progress on immigration, the budget, employment and other issues.

“We are voting ideologically,” said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat, after meeting with farmers Friday in Kansas City. “If we had an immigration bill today, it would fail.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who joined Cleaver for an immigration discussion at Kansas City’s American Royal, bitterly criticized a “failure of political leadership” for the farm bill’s defeat.

“There needs to be an expression of more than just disappointment and frustration,” he said. “There has to be appropriate and real anger at a failure of this magnitude.”

There was real anger Friday, but much of it was aimed across the aisle: Republicans blamed Democrats, Democrats blamed Republicans.

The House bill was expected to cost $939 billion over 10 years. It included spending for crop insurance and other farm subsidies, as well as nutrition programs like food stamps.

The bill cut projected spending on food stamps by about $2 billion a year. That figure concerned some Democrats, but not enough to threaten the measure, House leadership believed.

In the final hours of this week’s debate, though, House Republicans approved an amendment that toughened work requirements for food stamp recipients. That convinced dozens of Democrats — including Cleaver — to abandon the bill.

At the same time, Republicans like Reps. Tim Huelskamp and Mike Pompeo of Kansas said the food stamp cuts didn’t go far enough. They also voted against the bill.

“I could not vote for a bill that locks in the massive expansion of the food stamp program,” Huelskamp’s statement said.

Members from both parties scrambled Friday to figure out a path forward for the legislation.

Extending the current farm bill for another year is possible, although Vilsack said that approach would leave some farmers unprotected against bad weather or other calamities.

“An extension is a continuation of this failure of leadership,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican who voted for the bill Thursday, said he expected another attempt at passing a stand-alone bill later this year, although it wasn’t clear Friday what changes might be made to increase votes for the measure.

The Senate has already passed a farm bill and is waiting for the House to make up its mind.

Farmers said they hope the House will try again.

“We hope our elected leaders will regroup and finish the job for America’s farmers and ranchers, and the many other families who benefit from the farm bill,” said Missouri Farm Bureau president Blake Hurst in a prepared statement.

The current farm bill expires Sept. 30. If nothing is done, farm policy could revert to a 1949 law — the last time a permanent farm bill was passed. That would dramatically change subsidy rates and programs.

Graves used a well-known barnyard epithet when asked whether the farm bill’s failure reflects broader congressional dysfunction that could harm other legislation this year.

“That’s not fair,” he added. “It’s a process.”

But dozens of congressional observers and critics across the country said the farm vote indicates the continuing struggle for compromise that has made passage of significant legislation virtually impossible.

“The defeat of the farm bill ... shows, once again, how massively dysfunctional the House and its leadership has become,” wrote Jake Sherman for Politico, a political website.

“It plainly reveals that a bipartisan rewrite of the nation’s complex and politically charged immigration laws are a pipe dream in the House, at least for now,” he added. “Preventing a government shutdown and debt limit fight are not far behind.”

Others, though, said the rejection of the farm bill made good sense. A loose coalition of conservative groups and environmentalists has said for weeks that the measure spends too much for too little return.

“No one should be surprised that the full House of Representatives thoroughly rejected the bloated and divisive farm bill,” wrote Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group, a longstanding critic of farm subsidies.

Conservative columnist Paul Roderick Gregory agreed.

“Let’s have an even more dysfunctional Congress,” he wrote. “Something good may come of it.”

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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