A Good Test of Exactly How Screwed Up Washington Is

by Stuart Rothenberg June 20, 2013 · 11:09 PM EDT

Editor's Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call before Thursday's vote.

Once upon a time, on a very different planet and in a very different country, the farm bill was not among the more controversial things that Congress did.

Yes, previous farm bills have produced knock-down, drag-out fights between various parts of the country, each seeking to protect its own commodities and farmers. And in 1981, the farm bill passed by only two votes, 205-203, with the conference committee’s report passing the House just two weeks before the end of the calendar year.

But those were largely fights over who got what, and most farm bills have produced relatively civil fights over how the pie — a shrinking pie, when it comes to money for actual farmers — is divided.

But this year (following last year’s failure to produce a comprehensive bill), many of the usual suspects on the left and the right are once again approaching the bill as if it’s a crucial test on the role of government, where compromise means violating one’s fundamental principles.

The 2013 farm bill passed the Senate by a comfortable 66-27 vote, the result of a good working relationship between Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and the ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi. Though they come from very different states and have very different views on many issues, the two senators worked hard to put together a bill that could garner support on both sides of the aisle.

Stabenow and Cochran showered each other with compliments at the Delta Council’s annual meeting in Cleveland, Miss., in May — a reminder of how things once worked in Washington, D.C., before Fox News, MSNBC, talk radio, the Internet and the Citizens United decision (among a long list of other things) emasculated the parties and replaced civility with confrontation.

Only two Democrats voted against passage, Rhode Island Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, while 17 of the 42 Republicans who cast votes supported the measure. Interestingly, Republican senators from Georgia, Mississippi and Arkansas voted for the measure, while the two GOP senators from Alabama opposed it.

Predictably, the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity opposed the Senate’s version of the farm bill, while on the other side of the aisle and in the other chamber, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is on record saying that she is “not likely” to support the farm bill in the House.

The House has been working on its own version of the bill, and whatever passes that chamber — assuming something does — will be different from the Senate bill. House Republicans want more spending cuts on food stamps, not less.

House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas of Oklahoma and ranking member Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota have tried to do what Stabenow and Cochran were able to accomplish, but their road is rockier.

It’s quite true that the farm bill has evolved dramatically over the past five or six decades, so that it is more a food stamp bill than an agriculture bill, and this year’s legislation has, many believe, benefited Southern agriculture more than Midwestern agriculture.

The House needs to pass a bill so that the two chambers can go to conference. And in conference, House and Senate negotiators must find a compromise that can pass both chambers. Then, the president must sign it, his objections notwithstanding. It’s as simple as that.

Democrats unhappy with food stamp cuts are going to have to suck it up and vote for them. And Republicans unhappy that there is too much spending are going to have to suck it up and accept the compromise.

Contrary to what some senators have argued, the vote on the farm bill isn’t about morality. It’s not about fundamental rights. It’s about politics — and either splitting the difference or even finding the lowest common denominator. It’s about finding a dollar amount that a majority of House and Senate members can live with, even if they don’t like it.

Shortly after the House accepted the conference committee report on the 1981 farm bill by a mere two votes, House Agriculture Chairman E. ”Kika” de la Garza explained why he supported it even though he didn’t much like it.

“It’s not the bill I would write,” said the Texas Democrat, according The Washington Post. “I’ve been to the Executive Office Building. I can see no alternative.”

So, in the finest tradition of politics, he got the best that he could and moved on to fight another day. Today’s members of Congress might want to think about that.