Susan Cole reads the farm bill to the House prior to last week's floor debate in this screenshot of a C-SPAN report on the legislation. The bill failed 198 to 213. (via C-SPAN online video)

Every five years or so, rural America sits in the spotlight at the center of the nation’s legislative news cycle. Rather than showcasing the opioid epidemic or seemingly endless economic woes, mainstream journalists try to wrap their heads around the federal “farm bill” and its implications to their coastal urban audience.

Often, Beltway farm bill journalism focuses on the “surprising” data nugget that approximately 80% of the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s $140 billion budget is spent on nutrition programs. The biggest chunk is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, the program formerly known as food stamps), that provides 40 million people with support for food purchases. Why do we call it the farm bill, the thinking goes, when such a large percentage of farm bill spending goes to support meeting the nutritional needs of low-income families?

Last week, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives provided us with a lesson in farm bill civics. They spent their time on the House floor debating a draft of the legislation that would make significant cuts to SNAP, as well as implementing a punitive series of work or job training requirements for program participants. Ultimately, the Republican majority was not able to wrangle enough votes and their bill failed with a 198-213 vote. The entire Democratic caucus opposed the bill, and they were joined by 30 Republicans.

The generally accepted narrative to describe bipartisanship within farm bill debates is that urban legislators support the bill to meet nutritional needs of low-income residents while rural legislators garner spending for agriculture subsidies and crop insurance. Everybody gets a little bit of what they want, and the USDA’s budget is more-or-less set for the next five years.

The main headlines and analysis of the defeat is focused on the House Freedom Caucus, several members having voted against the bill in an attempt to force a vote on stricter immigration policies. Politico’s Rachel Bade, for instance, reported that, “House Republicans are at each other’s throats after the Freedom Caucus delivered a shock to party leaders on Friday by killing a key GOP bill over an unrelated simmering feud over immigration.”

It’s certainly true that the Freedom Caucus played a role in defeating the bill, but it’s also true that numerous Republican moderates were part of the no-vote bloc. Additionally, the Democrats’ 100% opposition is unprecedented in farm bill debates. That’s because farm bills have a long history of bipartisan collaboration and cooperation, a governing norm that was brought up repeatedly as representatives spoke out against the bill during floor debate.

I’ve been involved with farm bill and agriculture policy process for the last 20 years as a writer, amateur policy wonk and sometimes farmer. I have a clear bias toward farm bill programs that support farm income, promote conservation practices and wildlife habitat, deliver economic development resources and hold agribusiness corporations accountable for their anti-competitive practices.

My view is that we’re making a mistake to focus on the “palace intrigue” of the Republican infighting about immigration. On the merits, the House bill was misguided, short-sighted and cruel. It’s certainly true that rural America needs help, that farmers need a farm bill to provide them some degree of security as the current package expires in a few short months. The Republican draft didn’t solve those challenges.

A robust SNAP program, for instance, is critical to a functioning local economy in many rural communities. Eighty-five of the top 100 counties in nation with highest SNAP participation rates are rural, as we’ve previously reported. These pockets of persistent rural poverty are found in white Appalachia, African-American communities in the South, Native American communities in the West and the Plains and Latino communities in the Texas borderlands. If you live in these places, or have visited them, it’s pretty clear that the jobs SNAP recipients would need to remain eligible for the benefit are few and far between. Workforce training, another part of the proposed SNAP requirements, is even harder to find.

Additionally, the House draft eliminated the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the nation’s largest conservation program with more than 70 million acres enrolled. The Conservation Title itself faced proposed cuts, even as more farmers are interested in enrolling in programs that would boost soil health, decrease water pollution and expand wildlife habitat.

The bill did little, if anything, to address the dairy price crisis at a time when dozens of dairy farmers are selling off their herds and leaving the business. The draft eliminated the Energy Title, de-funding programs that support a booming rural clean energy economy.

At this point, it’s not clear whether the House Republicans will work out their internal immigration squabbles and return to the farm bill debate. The Senate is likely to release their bipartisan farm bill draft and hold a committee markup in the next couple of weeks. Let’s hope they learn from the House’s mistakes and craft a bill that delivers the goods for rural America, including the food assistance needs for low-income communities.

Bryce Oates writes about rural agriculture, conservation and economics. He is a Missouri native who has worked as a farmer and farm policy advocate. 

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