Lori Sanders

As much as I never like to question anyone’s intentions, I finally find myself asking this week, do House Republicans really want to reform Washington?

Perhaps it was naïve, but after the defeat of the Farm Bill, I thought hope was in the air for agriculture policy reform. Numerous Republicans had offered strong amendments, many of which were rejected at the onset by the Rules Committee. And a fair number of the remaining amendments were defeated on the floor at the urging of leadership. This egregious flouting of their party’s desire to curb spending pushed members over the edge. Sixty-two fiscally conservative Republicans revolted against the bill, proving to leadership once and for all that, indeed, they are here to actually make changes.

This failure appeared to make leadership desperate, forcing them to take the drastic step they’d previously vowed to avoid – splitting the bill into two portions, one for food assistance and one for agriculture programs. Reform advocates long have tossed around splitting the bill. Their logic is simple: neither portion of the bill is strong enough to stand alone. Nutrition program supporters and farm program enthusiasts need each other to get the bill across the finish line. So for those who find the programs to be bloated, forcing each portion through on its own merit seemed more likely to yield change than the current back-scratching arrangement.

But the bill’s failure changed that calculus. The chance seemed golden. A scaled-back agriculture side stands a chance of passing with a mixture of Democratic and Republican votes and even a gutted food stamp program can likely pass on a party-line vote. Republicans could be the party of true reform, both standing up to constituent pressure by restructuring agriculture subsidies and reforming nutrition programs to stem the program’s rapid growth.

Or they could just gut food stamps. With the pressure of leadership, it looks like that’s what they are going to do. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has been making the rounds, excoriating Republicans who voted against the bill for letting their party (and its rich farm interests) down, and highly encouraging them to vote in favor of the agriculture portion as it stands now. He’s so confident in his coaxing that the word on the street is that the bill will come to the floor very soon under a closed rule, meaning no further amendments can be considered.

To be sure, there are a few positive changes to agriculture programs in this year’s bill, such as ending direct payments. But in the end, the proposed legislation will actually be far more generous than existing agriculture programs. From guaranteeing some farmers 85 percent of their recent record-high revenue (without cost to them, of course) to expanding crop insurance participation without curbing the program’s generous overpayments, the bill represents a boon to an already thriving industry. However, the small changes may be enough for supposed Republican reformers to hide behind, given the opportunity to find more savings in a food stamp bill with party-line votes.

Will enough Republicans fall for this logic? That remains to be seen, but it’s safe to assume that they will, because otherwise there would be no rush to bring the bill to the floor with a closed rule. And assuming the bill passes as is, it will be even more generous than the Democrat-controlled Senate’s bill when it comes to farm policy.

The kicker is that the promised food stamp cuts will never materialize. Even the $20 billion in cuts currently found in the bill don’t stand a chance of making it through a conference committee, let alone across the president’s desk. Any further cuts are simply a marker in the sand, about as symbolic and meaningful as the coming 38th repeal of Obamacare.

Republicans know this. In a briefing today at the Heritage Foundation, Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., admitted that this was about going on the record for what’s right. There’s nothing wrong with standing on principle, but the problem is the double-standard. Stutzman also admitted that crop insurance, the biggest support program for farmers, is in need of reform and could potentially stand alone without federal subsidies (rather than the $12 billion in federal support last year alone). In the end, he said, that when it comes to agriculture reform, it’s important to take things incrementally, accepting this year’s “reforms” and moving on.

But then why not take things incrementally with food stamps and meet the Senate’s $4 billion in cuts, just to lock them in? Or alternately, if taking the hard vote to find savings in food stamps is necessary, why not take the hard votes on agriculture policy? At least those changes have a chance to make it through conference, and have the president’s support, given that his own budget calls for reductions in agriculture support.

Perhaps Republicans aren’t the reformers they make themselves out to be, willing to cut everyone’s benefits but their constituents. Or perhaps, as it’s been occasionally alleged, maybe they just aren’t that serious and prefer showmanship that rallies their base to taking on hard tasks. Either way, it’s time to prove both these theories wrong by rejecting a closed rule. It’s not too late to find real savings, the kind today’s Republicans ran on, and even to score some points for bipartisanship while they’re at it.


Lori Sanders

Lori Sanders is outreach manager and policy analyst at the R Street Institute.