Nancy Pelosi

Strange bedfellows are opposing the farm bill

June 19, 2013: 9:14 AM ET

Subsidies -- for both needy families and less-needy corporate interests -- have drawn opponents as diverse as the Koch brothers and the Environmental Working Group.

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FORTUNE -- There are Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the farm bill debate, but that doesn't mean the fight isn't partisan. The bill covers several big parts of the economy and is so wide-ranging that the debate really comprises a whole bunch of smaller fights, mainly over who gets how much and what kinds of government largesse. Republicans in the House, which took up the bill this week, want big cuts to the federal food stamp program. Many Democrats think those proposed cuts are too severe. Farm state legislators want to retain crop subsidies, while their opponents on both sides of the aisle -- for different reasons -- want them cut more than proposed.

The whole thing adds up to a big, sprawling mess, and it's possible that either no bill will be passed, or that President Obama will veto it should it reach his desk.

A perfect illustration of the almost-bizarre nature of the debate came this week when the Sunlight Foundation noted in a report on Tuesday that the conservative Koch brothers and the Environmental Working Group not only both oppose the measure, but also make "many of the same arguments against the subsidies." One of several video ads issued last week by Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs' 501(c)4 lobbying group, attacks subsidies to wealthy farm owners and "corporate agriculture" and contends that "people like that nice family at your local farmers market" are left to "fight for the scraps."

It's a bit too much to say, as the Sunlight Foundation does, that the AFP is "lining up with some unusual partners" (meaning the EWG and other liberal groups), but the EWG does happen to oppose the subsidies in the bill. In particular, the EWG accuses the authors of the House bill of tucking new subsidies in to replace some that are being cancelled:

"Under the guise of reform, the committee has proposed a classic bait-and-switch: It is proposing to end the subsidies called direct payments, but it is channeling most of the savings into crop insurance and higher target crop prices."

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The bill calls for a cut of $5 billion in direct payments, but, in all, the measure still includes about $15 billion in subsidies. Besides the crop insurance program, subsidies would rise for rice, peanut, sugar, and dairy farmers. This even though prices for many farm commodities are at or near record highs. Nevertheless, Rep. Frank Lucas, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, called the measure "the most reform-minded bill in decades."

Farm-state legislators are mostly on board with the bill, which House Speaker John Boehner has pledged to try to push through even though he says he doesn't like it.

Complicating matters is the fact that the bill also covers the federal food stamp program, and here is where the AFP and liberal groups fall out of line with each other. The Republican-written bill would cut $2 billion from the program, which costs $80 billion a year -- a figure that has approximately doubled since the last farm bill was passed in 2008 (before the recession took hold). Liberal Democrats in the House contend that such a cut would result in 2 million people losing access to food stamps. Some Republicans, meanwhile, want even more cut from the program. The Senate's farm bill, passed last week, would cut just $400 million, only a fifth of what the House measure proposes.

In another video ad, AFP wonders why food stamps are even included in the farm bill (a good question, actually) and goes on to contend that most Americans believe that "government handouts" are the main reason for persistent poverty (unemployment came in at a fairly distant second).

The proposed cuts led House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to say she will vote against the bill as it stands. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democratic leader in the House, on Tuesday called the cuts "irresponsible." The proposed cuts are also the sticking point for President Obama, who has said he will veto the bill if they come in at that level.

The farm bill, which is supposed to be renewed every five years, has already been delayed once, after the House failed to pass it in January. The 2008 bill was passed in a very different environment: before the tea party revolution. Since then, many Democrats and some moderate Republicans have been ousted by much more conservative House members, making for a very complicated set of circumstances on the Republican side of the aisle. That's why Boehner has to make a show of holding his nose while announcing that he reluctantly supports the bill, and why Republican leaders are trying to convince their more conservative colleagues that their issues can be addressed in a conference committee with the Senate.

But it's also why, yet again, we might see the 2008 bill extended until the House can get it together.

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