Every time a farm bill comes before Congress, fiscal conservatives wring their hands over the cost while free-market economists without constituencies enriched by the legislation grumble about how the government is subsidizing when it should be standing aside. None of this makes much difference because when the bill comes to a vote, rural Republicans and urban Democrats stand shoulder-to-shoulder to pass it.
The reason is food stamps, a lifeline for poor people in America. Is the program abused? Occasionally. Is it humane? Generally.
Food stamps, which is formally known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also help farmers sell what they produce. If the poor cannot afford food, major consumers would consume less and farmers would earn less.
So, bound by mutual self-interest, senators and representatives beholden to these constituencies work together. It may be one of the least heralded, but most important, examples of bipartisanship going for us today. As a result, people get fed, farmers make a profit and everyone is happy.
Well, not everyone, which is why the nearly $1 trillion farm bill awaiting congressional action is in trouble.
Although the bill cuts $20.5 billion from food stamp costs, the conservative Heritage Foundation argues that “it isn’t a ‘farm bill.’ It’s a food stamp bill,” and as such perpetuates a social program the foundation opposes. Legislators who march to that tune will vote against it.
Some Democrats oppose the bill because they feel the food stamp cuts are too deep, and they are prepared to vote against it as well.
The coalition that has united to pass farm legislation for decades may not survive.
It is the task of House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican who represents an agricultural state, to hold together as much of the old alliance as possible to get the measure through. If he fails, bipartisanship will take another blow. Many more and there will be nothing left.