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House GOP passes stripped-down farm bill

By Steve Benen on July 11, 2013
© The Maddow Blog MSNBC

The farm bill is supposed to be one of the year's easiest pieces of legislation, which is why the House Republicans' difficulties in getting this done has become so terribly embarrassing.

A month ago, the Senate easily approved a bipartisan farm bill on a 66-to-27 vote, and the legislation appeared to be on safe ground. The House, true to form, decided the Senate bill was too liberal, and created a more conservative version with the intention of sending the package to a conference committee. That didn't work out -- in a move that came as a huge surprise to the House's own Republican leaders, GOP lawmakers said their own bill wasn't right-wing enough.

This afternoon, the House Republican leadership managed to avoid further humiliation, but only by a slim margin.

House GOP leaders took a gamble Thursday in bringing a farm bill without food stamps up for a vote, and it paid off -- but just barely.

The House passed the modified farm bill 216-208, inching across a 212 threshold with no Democrats voting in favor. Twelve Republicans also voted against the measure, but that was far short of the more than 60 who defected from leadership on a similar bill last month.

To make conservatives happy, GOP leaders broke the farm bill apart -- instead of combining food stamps (which the left supports) and support for the agricultural industry (which the right supports), Republicans decided to drop altogether the provisions related to helping poor families eat, vowing to get back to that issue later. This satisfied just enough members on the right to get the bill across the finish line.

Now what happens? No one can say for sure. There's no way the Democratic Senate majority will go along with this stripped-down farm bill, especially given the bipartisan support for a better bill in the upper chamber that passed a month ago.

As for what the House has in store for struggling families wondering how/whether they'll be able to buy food, the Republican plan is likely to be shockingly cruel.


Remember, the original plan from the House GOP was to cut $20 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. According to Bread for the World, a principled anti-hunger group, that's the equivalent of "almost half of all the charitable food assistance that food banks and food charities provide to people in need."

And that was before. Now that Republicans have broken the farm bill into pieces, Robert Greenstein is right to expect "deeply disturbing" results.

Until now, farm/SNAP legislation has been one of the few remaining areas of bipartisan legislative activity. The House Republicans' scorched-earth policy with respect to SNAP is ending that, turning farm and SNAP legislation into a bitter partisan battleground on the House floor.

The likely result will be enactment of farm-only legislation, with SNAP being placed in a more tenuous position when its authorization expires on September 30. (The House very likely will later pass a severe SNAP-only authorization bill to which the Senate likely will not respond.) What happens then is unclear, with a decided risk of Republican threats and actions to short-change SNAP's appropriation on the grounds that the program hasn't been reauthorized.

Tens of millions of Americans (including many who work for low wages) live in poverty, struggle to make ends meet, and often suffer significant hardships, but they can at least get basic nutritional assistance through SNAP. They ought not to be pawns in political maneuvers, and Congress should not jeopardize their chances of getting enough food to eat.

Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team managed to barely avert another partisan catastrophe this afternoon, but the likelihood of a human catastrophe in the near future is quite real.

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