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What the farm bill’s failure says about congressional function

Congress needs to get on the policymaking road again.

House Speaker Paul Ryan Holds Weekly News Conference Alex Wong/Getty Images

The (first crack at the) semi-decennial farm bill failed on Friday. Many commentators have focused on the failure as an example of how immigration continues to tear apart the GOP caucus. That immigration is dividing the GOP is unassailable as fact — but the farm bill did not fail because of that. For that to be the case, every bill that deals with immigration in some way (which would be every bill dealing with labor or law enforcement, to name only two issues) would presumably fail as well.

This farm bill failed for multiple reasons. The first is uninteresting but important: Given the partisan divide (see below), this version of the bill would not survive an almost certain filibuster in the Senate. So it was arguably grandstanding and/or Speaker Paul Ryan plumbing the depths of his support within the conference regarding appropriations.

The second is more interesting (though less mutable). The farm bill has, especially in the scholarly discussions of American politics over the past 50 years, been held up as a classic example of “strange bedfellows” in politics. In normal times, the farm bill was ultimately designed to offer benefits to both very rural and very urban districts, essentially subsidized by suburban districts. This was accomplished by providing subsidies to farmers while also providing subsidized food to poor urban Americans, through either SNAP (food stamps) or subsidized school breakfasts and lunches.

This quid pro quo was impressively resilient. The initial farm bill was passed in 1933! As opposed to then (or even in 1990), the electoral geography of the US has changed remarkably. Simply put, there are few to no Democratic “farm” districts and few to no Republican “urban” districts. Geographical sorting and/or gerrymandering, combined with intensified partisanship, has made sustaining the “farm-to-school” coalition much less tenable than it was 30 years ago. The history of the farm bill since 2008 illustrates this breakdown.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether the subsidies contained in the farm bill are socially good or bad. Any meaningful farm bill essentially must be redistributing income, so the ultimate evaluation about whether such a bill is a good idea ultimately must rest on the outcomes from the bill relative to such redistribution.

That said, farm bills passed without much fanfare for more than 70 years (i.e., more than a dozen such bills were enacted), and suddenly the bottom dropped out. Unless I’m missing something, none of the “fundamentals” about the farm bill changed between 2003 and 2008. That is, aside from the political landscape. Simply put, there used to be common ground between rural and urban areas in America. Friday’s failure of the farm bill — in a unified Congress with a co-partisan sitting in the White House — suggests that this is no longer the case.

The following map of how House members voted demonstrates this. The light blue and light red districts denote districts represented by members (light blue: Democratic, light red: Republican) who voted nay on the farm bill. Given the unanimous opposition by Democrats on Friday’s vote and the Democratic Party’s current seat advantage in urban districts, it is unsurprising that most members from urban districts voted on the opposite side of most members from rural districts.

The House vote on the farm bill May 18, 2018.
Voteview.com

To contrast this with previous farm bill votes, consider the next map, which illustrates the votes on passage of the 1985 farm bill.

House votes on the Food Security Act of 1985.
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Not only was passage of the 1985 farm bill bipartisan (Democrats: 184 yeas, 62 nays; Republicans: 98 yeas, 79 nays), it won support in both urban and rural districts.

Partisanship and ideology. Viewing the structure of these two votes from a higher level that incorporates and compares members across many votes on many issues is illuminating. The first figure illustrates how the farm bill vote on May 18 divided the GOP. The light red upside-down triangles represent the members of the GOP who voted against the bill. Note that they are “close together” relative to the group of all dark and light red triangles, which represent all of the GOP members. This group of legislators is the faction that stood up against Ryan, at least in part in pursuit of more aggressive action on immigration policy.

Ideology and partisanship: how the 2018 farm bill split the GOP.
Voteview.com

Now, turning back to the passage vote on the 1985 farm bill, the next figure contains both light blue and light red upside-down triangles, which again represent the members who voted against the 1985 bill. The key point is that these nay votes are “scattered throughout” the membership of the House.

Strange bedfellows and bipartisanship: how the 1985 farm bill crossed party lines.
Voteview.com

In other words, while the 2018 vote is consistent with both partisanship (all the Democrats voted nay) and ideology (a coherent “ideological cluster” of GOP members defected from their leadership), the 1985 vote indicates little of either. This is because the 1985 farm bill was passed by a “strange bedfellows” coalition in which urban and rural districts joined forces in pursuit of redistributive benefits.

Polarization and policy. I don’t want to argue that pork-barrel politics is a “good thing,” of course. However, the farm bill has been more frequently delayed, and for increasingly long periods (the 2008 farm bill was passed over President George W. Bush’s veto, the 2013 farm bill failed, and the 2014 farm bill was delayed by more than two years). Regardless of whether we think farm and/or food subsidies are a good idea, if we’re going to have them, it makes sense for their passage to be orderly.

The vote on the 2018 farm bill demonstrates how at least two forces are stymieing congressional policymaking: polarization both between and within the party caucuses. Indeed, these forces are so strong right now that even what used to be near consensual business is fraught. It wasn’t always this way.