Till The Bill: How Conservatives Wrecked The Farm Bill Over Food Stamps

With a compromise farm bill finally coming to the House floor, it is worth taking a moment to review why it took this long to get here – endless Republican obstruction.

As Sens. Mike Lee and Ted Cruz were taking the Republican war on health care reform to new extremes, forcing the government to shut down in the process, another political standoff defined by conservative radicalism received much less attention.

Last October, the farm bill expired, leaving uncertain the future of agricultural programs and essential food assistance for the poor. The expiration came after more than a year of intraparty squabbling among Republicans over the size of proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – commonly known as food stamps.

The House Agriculture Committee approved a five-year farm bill extension in July 2012, but congressional conservatives demanded major cuts to the food stamp program as ransom for their support. The debate carried over into the new Congress, where the Tea Party faction successfully blocked the bill from moving forward. Unable to satisfy the far right’s appetite for draconian cuts, Republican leaders eventually poisoned the process by severing the bill and passing “farm-only” legislation alongside a separate measure slashing funding for food stamps.

The Republican leadership’s decision to split the farm bill guaranteed its failure, but it was a coup for conservatives who have a long history of dishonestly vilifying food stamp recipients. Indeed, congressional Republicans habitually portray the food stamp program as “rife with fraud” and complain that its beneficiaries are “gaming the system” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, many of the same conservative lawmakers who fought to strip food stamp dollars from the farm bill have benefited personally from agricultural subsidies.

In reality, the food stamp program is both a crucial element of the safety net and a wise investment. Food stamps are responsible for keeping millions of Americans out of poverty, and they do much more to stimulate the economy than policies favored by conservatives, such as costly tax breaks for the wealthy and big corporations.

But the facts are irrelevant to congressional Republicans intent on decimating the safety net, a goal shared by several of the most influential players in the conservative movement. Throughout the farm bill debate, the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, and the Club for Growth all insisted on massive cuts to food stamps and pressured lawmakers to reject bipartisan compromise. Notably, the key backers of those groups include foundations associated with the ultra-wealthy Koch, DeVos, and Scaife families.

Congressional Republicans already allowed 2013 to pass without a farm bill because of the Tea Party’s commitment to slashing a key safety net program. Now, with Congress finally on the verge of a deal, Republicans should start focusing on how to give hardworking Americans more opportunities instead of trying to take them away.

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