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Farm Bill Slog Mirrors Transportation Fight

The farm bill fiasco continues as the August recess approaches, the devastation from drought grows deeper and the House continues to play games, dimming hopes for a bipartisan compromise along the lines of the Senate bill.

The issues have their own importance and dynamics, but the fandango here also signals a significant difference in the House and Senate that could have real reverberations next year and beyond.

First, the fundamentals: The farm program runs out Sept. 30. It needs reauthorization but clearly needs serious revamping as well, especially of the outmoded and costly direct payments to farmers.

The Senate made a serious bipartisan stab at reform, which was not exactly revolutionary, (the money from the direct payments is largely channeled back into crop supports) but still commendable given farm interests and the need to find a majority.

The House Agriculture Committee had similar bipartisan support for its bill, which took a somewhat different tack in terms of which commodities got rewarded and which got punished. But the grounds for a conference report to resolve the differences were there until the House showed the complications of trying to do anything these days that is not highly ideological and purely partisan.

The problems started to cascade when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor
(R-Va.) rebuffed Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and pulled the bill from the floor, delaying it until well after the Independence Day recess. In the meantime, the problems for crops and livestock, and for farmers unprotected from drought losses, mounted, and the time for action grew shorter and shorter.

So why not act now? The big problem is that the House simply cannot muster 218 votes for any substantive farm bill.

A large swath of Republicans want to make deep cuts in the food stamp program, accounting for $16 billion in cuts of the overall $35 billion in cuts over 10 years that was reported out of the House Ag Committee.

For urban Democrats, that was far too much to embrace, especially with the weak economy and more demand on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from families having trouble making ends meet.

But for tea party Republicans, it was not enough — they are demanding much deeper SNAP cuts.

Cantor has little interest in pushing a bill that is opposed by any significant group of conservatives, and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has little interest in pushing a bill that could make up for the loss of those conservative votes by attracting more Democrats.

The fallback plan — passing a one-year extension of the current program, which would mean leaving intact both the direct payments and the food stamp status quo — could attract Democratic support only if it were the pretext to send the farm bill to conference, where both chambers could work on a compromise from the Senate-passed bill, something akin to what was done on the transportation bill earlier this year.

That bill was the precursor of this pattern. As the peak construction season approached, the Senate found a bipartisan sweet spot, passing a bill with 74 votes. It had two unlikely key partners, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who ignored the broader ideological gulf between them and found common ground.

But the House, led by Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), refused to find anything in common across parties or chambers, leading to a long and embarrassing deadlock that finally ended with the jury-rigged conference, albeit for a shorter term than the usual authorization.

So we have two major bills that found broad bipartisan coalitions in the Senate and foundered in the House.

The Senate, to be sure, remains a body far more characterized by partisan obstruction and routine filibusters on bills and holds on nominations than it is a legislative model.

But on some issues, where the need is clear, where traditional Republican interests want action and where the political damage from inaction is real, the Senate has shown it can still act as it once routinely did.

There is a problem-solving center in the Senate. Next year, especially if President Barack Obama wins a second term, it would emerge somewhat more frequently, even if Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) decided to continue in large part the pattern of strategic obstruction.

There are several Republican Senators — Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee, Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Mike Crapo of Idaho (and, I hope, John McCain of Arizona) who are tired of voting “no” and yearn to solve major problems.

But the House is a different matter. The transportation and farm bills show that even the pressure that comes with agreement between parties in the Senate and between the Senate and the White House will not faze House conservatives and their patrons in the leadership.

That Boehner is leading the charge to use the debt limit as leverage to cut spending yet again — after pleading with his colleagues to be grown-ups the first time around — shows how limited his power is to change the pattern.

If anything, House Republicans in the 113th Congress will be even more conservative than they are in the 112th, while Democrats will be more liberal. The challenge for governance in the American system of separation of powers will be centered in the House, whether it is a President Mitt Romney or a President Obama, and whether the farm bill gets resolved satisfactorily or not.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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