On the eve of May 17, 2018, a Mexican standoff broke out on the floor of the House of Representatives. Three parties, the conservative House Freedom Caucus (HFC), House Speaker Paul Ryan, and moderate Republican lawmakers, had their guns drawn at one another as one of the most important pieces of legislation of the year was 24 hours away from a vote. The draft of the 2018 Farm Bill, an enormous 867-billion-dollar agriculture and food aid package, appeared prone to get caught in the crossfire at any moment. Then the shots broke out.
In a decisive 213 to 193 vote, the draft Farm Bill failed to pass the House as the House Freedom Caucus joined with Democrats to withhold their support. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) had tried to negotiate with the HFC, which was attempting to force a simultaneous vote on an entirely unrelated matter: immigration. Passing the Farm Bill, which funds programs that alleviate hunger and malnutrition for over 40 million Americans, has been one of the most critical obligations of Congress since 1933. But members of the HFC stood their ground, despite an offer from Paul Ryan to negotiate immigration in the coming weeks, which ended any chance of passing the bill.
In the aftermath of the thoroughly “disappointing vote,” as a statement from the House Agriculture Committee put it, the blame game started virtually immediately. All fingers were seemingly pointed at the House leadership, namely on lame-duck Speaker Paul Ryan. Invariably, there is some truth to the accusation of Speaker Ryan’s inability to create cohesive Republican support, particularly when the Republicans fail to pass a bill through a chamber they control. Ryan’s decision to step down later this year created, in the eyes of pundits and colleagues, a sense that the Speaker’s influence was waning rapidly in House.
But citing Paul Ryan’s short comings is not enough to explain one the most damning failures of the House in this year.
Every five years, a new iteration of bill must be approved to provide funding for essential programs that regulate federal food and nutrition aid, crop subsidies, food quality, and international food trade, and dozens of other issues. The core of the bill—and its greatest single cost—is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, that serves as the nation’s safety net against chronic hunger. According to figures from the US Department of Agriculture, over 42 million Americans received SNAP benefits in 2017 fiscal year, averaging just over 127 dollars per person.
In the late 1970s, the food stamp program was incorporated into the Farm Bill along with agro-subsidies to make the Farm Bill attractive to both urban Democrats and pastoral Republicans. Defying expectations, the unusual partnership worked, and for decades the Farm Bill experienced strong bipartisan support. Although the most recent bills in 2008 and 2014 generated more heat—the partisan strife was enough to delay the latter bill several months—the Farm Bill has generally received support across both sides of the aisle.
What changed in 2018? For one, the Republican authors of the draft included provisions that tightened the eligibility requirements for SNAP. These changes included a new mandate that healthy, unemployed SNAP enrollees participate in 20 hours a week of mandated job training.
Failure to participate may result in the forfeiture of one to three years’ worth of SNAP benefits.
Barbara Stuart, a lecturer in the Yale University English Department who teaches a course on the Farm Bill, believes that these changes were the result of an earnest but misguided desire to lower America’s food stamp dependent population.
“The assumption is that people who get these benefits are not working,” Stuart told The Politic, “but almost a third of all SNAP households have an adult that’s working.” Amongst unemployed SNAP enrollees, Stuart also notes that a significant number are disabled individuals, senior citizens, and children.
Changes to the work requirements could put additional strain on individuals and families. Elderly individuals below the age of 60 would have to hold part time jobs, while mothers with young children above the age of 6 would be expected to do the same without additional financial support for child care costs. For the one third of families struggling even with the help of SNAP support, these stringent requirements could prove to be the burden that threatens these families’ tenuous stability.
As a result of such changes, up to 1 million more individuals will eventually become ineligible for SNAP benefits, according to a preliminary estimate from the Congressional Budget Office. Among House Democrats, these changes garnered unanimous opposition. Compounding this, the Senate is in the process of crafting its own version of the Farm Bill. The Senate Republicans, who control 51 seats, need 60 votes to pass their bill. Currently, the Senate draft contains no changes to work requirements.
Still, political roadblocks are hardly foreign to lawmakers. But in this case, objection over changes to work requirements helped set the stage for an intra-party insurrection. Although the GOP controls the majority of seats in the House, its members have stratified into different ideological wings. Since the passage of the prior Farm Bill, a group of 32 far-right conservatives banded together to form the House Freedom Caucus. Outspoken and unapologetically obstinate, the HFC has closely aligned itself with President Trump while antagonizing more moderate members of their party.
HFC members have turned their weaknesses, namely their small size and relative youth, into strengths, as their caucus has become a wild card in bills that otherwise would be confidently passed by the Republican majority. In 2015, the HFC came to center stage when it nominated moderate Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the widely-supported successor to Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), for the speakership role.
McCarthy, now the current majority leader, stood witness as the HFC again reared its head at the expense of moderate Republicans. This time, the HFC withheld critical votes needed to pass the 2018 Farm Bill in order to hasten a definitive decision on the status of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which had been terminated by Trump only to be partially revived by the judiciary earlier in the year.
That DACA has no relation on the surface to the Farm Bill did not faze HFC Chairman Mark Meadows (R-NC). “I can tell my farmers want us to deal with immigration and the Farm Bill,” Meadows said of his constituents two days before the vote, following an HFC meeting with House leadership.
Plans like this, which turn procedural votes into broader debates of conservative platform issues, have come to characterize the HFC playbook. Not in the history of Farm Bills has such an enormous piece of legislation been sidelined as the HFC guided attention away from the bill and onto inaction on immigration. And perhaps not in the history of Congress has such a small minority of lawmakers wielded such great authority over the the life and death of legislation that impacts millions of Americans.
The HFC operates in a manner unlike any ultra-partisan group before it. While it remains to be seen how the HFC will behave in future Farm Bill discussions, one fact is clear: whoever succeeds Paul Ryan after his retirement later this year and beyond will have to reckon with a new political landscape. It is one that contains the usual acrimony between Democrats and Republicans and the inevitable intraparty criticism of GOP leadership, but also the now constant threat of a House Freedom Caucus that may pull the rug out from beneath any bill.
In the meantime, the disintegration of the House Farm Bill has created a cloud of rising uncertainty for the many Americans who will rely on the bill’s measures to feed their families, sell their crops, and maintain their livelihoods in agribusiness. Stuart believes that these issues are complicated further by the heated, partisan political climate. She cites immigration as having important implications in agriculture, since farm labor is heavily reliant on immigrant workers. “We have to come to terms with how we’re going to [maintain] labor on farms” says Stuart “and we have a long history of not doing anything.” A formal, long term plan on immigration is unlikely to emerge before the current Farm Bill expires at the end of September.
Despite the unexpected failure of the Farm Bill, it’s unlikely that Michael Conway (R-TX), who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, will remove the controversial work requirements that sank the bill in the first place. Conway stated his support for the requirements, and reiterated the new requirements will enable SNAP-dependent families to start providing for themselves.
The irony is that the same goal is ostensibly supported by Democrats, too. At its heart, the Farm Bill is still a product of a bipartisan bills from the 20th century. Even in 2018, a minimum wage worker in New York City and a farmer in Nebraska both stand to benefit from this important legislation. “The last thing [farmers] need is the uncertainty of a prolonged debate over the 2018 Farm Bill,” Conaway told Congress the day of the vote.
Yet it seems that uncertainty is the only fair description of the status of America’s next Farm Bill. For now, Congress will take a break from further discussions to focus on other matters, as the existing Farm Bill edges towards expiration. The shifting dynamics of power in the House, coupled with what’s expected to be a heated midterm season, all but guarantee that the next Farm Bill draft will face an even steeper path towards passage. Until then, all eyes will be on House Republicans, as they head back to the drawing board, and work towards a solution to keep America’s food and agriculture programs funded.