The Farm Bill's Failure, Explained

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
June 20 2013 2:25 PM

The House's Humiliating Farm Bill Fail, Explained

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Shopping carts are collected outside a Costco store in Alhambra, Calif., on June 2, 2013.

Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Well, if you're on SNAP or other government assistance, it matters quite a lot. If you're just wondering how Congress manages to work right now, it's useful in a sort of academic way.

So: After a great deal of agony in 2012, Congress failed to pass a farm bill. The stumbling block for both sides was "food stamps" funding, which made sense because food stamps added up to $744 billion of a $940 billion bill. (They're not called "food stamps" anymore because that polls poorly, though Sen. Tom Coburn has tried and failed to amend the bill and change the name back. I'm serious.) The fiscal cliff deal patched over the holes for most of 2013, but the new, more-Democratic Congress was given another crack at the bill. The Senate passed a bipartisan version including five years of funds on a 66-27 vote.

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It was up to the House to pass this. Doing so would require a bipartisan coalition, albeit largely one of Republicans. That meant more strings attached to food stamps, but just enough to get to the goal. They never got to that goal—on a 195-234 vote, the House killed the bill.

Republicans are blaming duplicitous Democrats, who cheered when they realized how badly they'd humiliated the GOP. "This was always a bipartisan effort," says Erica Elliott, a spokesman for GOP whip Kevin McCarthy. "Democrats only delivered half of the votes they promised." Left unsaid: The Democrats were supposed to deliver 40 votes, and had they done so, the bill would have capsized anyway.

Still, the long game for Democrats does look messy, because the only way you're even theoretically going to bring some of the 60-odd Republican "no" votes back is with further cuts to food stamps.

But it's even messier than that! We're talking here about a bill that passed in fairly ideal Senate circumstances—a better than 2-1 bipartisan majority. What's another bill that's allegedly going to be built like that? The immigration bill, of course.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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