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House Smacks Down Farm Bill, And Farm Lobby, Too

The so-called farm bill came to the floor of the House of Representatives Thursday. And it crashed. The defeat shocked many observers, but the vote wasn't even particularly close: 234-195. (You can see how your own representative voted here.)

In the immediate aftermath, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., looking shell-shocked, blamed partisan politics. Democrats voted overwhelmingly against the bill, in large part because it cut an estimated $2 billion each year from nutrition programs like SNAP, or food stamps.

But 62 Republicans also voted against the bill, which highlighted an emerging new bipartisan reality. Farmers, along with those members of Congress who represent farm districts, are losing their grip on U.S. farm policy.

Farm-friendly members of the House Agriculture Committee wrote the version of the bill that died today. It included generous benefits to farmers, mainly in the form of government-subsidized crop insurance. It did not include a host of proposed reforms: limits on crop subsidies; proposals to buy more international food aid abroad, rather than ship it from U.S. ports; and nationwide standards on cages for egg-laying chickens, an idea supported by the country's biggest egg producers and also the Humane Society of the U.S.

In the past, the full House might have let the Agriculture Committee have its way. Not this year. Libertarians and liberals alike ganged up to defeat it.

Ed Royce, R-Calif., a senior Republican who tried unsuccessfully to reform the food aid parts of the bill, voted against it today. So did budget hawk Paul Ryan, R-Wisc. The conservative Heritage Foundation, which wanted deeper cuts in both food stamps and farm subsidies, called the bill's defeat "a victory for the taxpayer and the free market."

The bill's supporters might not have anticipated that reaction. "Lawmakers on the [Agriculture] Committee really underestimated the extent to which others were offended" by the bill, says Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group, one of the leading critics of agricultural subsidies. Lobbyists for farm interests "increasingly seem to have a political tin ear," Faber says.

It's unclear what happens next. The Senate has passed its own version of the farm bill, but it will remain in limbo until the House finishes its own work. Frank Lucas, R-OK., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, announced that "we are assessing all our options."

Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the committee's senior Democratic member, wrote "I have a hard time seeing where we go from here." Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, proposed that the House simply adopt the Senate's version of the bill, and bring it to the floor for a vote.

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