Ninth in a series.
WASHINGTON — Since the 1960s, the farm bill has represented an ultimate exercise in Washington dealmaking, stuffed with special-interest agriculture subsidies favored by rural Republicans as well as spending for the nation's food-stamp program favored by urban Democrats.
But in modern, gridlocked Washington, even the old traditions no longer seem to apply. "I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine,'' has been replaced with, "You gut my programs, and I'll kill yours.''
The latest example: The House on Thursday defeated the farm bill, 234 to 195, leaving the fate of nearly $1 trillion in farm subsidies and food-stamp programs in limbo.
Sixty-two Republicans defected on the vote, a reflection of House Speaker John Boehner's struggles to rein in his restive GOP caucus. By the end of the day, Republicans were blaming Democrats, Democrats were blaming Republicans, and members of the Senate — which has already passed its own version of a farm bill — were criticizing the House.
"It is a sad day in the House," said Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, a newly elected Democrat from New York. "And it's a tough education for those of us who have come here to work together, across the aisle."
By the time it went down in defeat, the farm bill had been mired in controversy, attacked by advocates who said it protected farming interests at the expense of the poor, with the food-stamp program serving as a political football between warring political interests.
Farmers who grow peanuts or nurture catfish would be protected under the House legislation, for example. Those who supply the nation with the sticky Japonica rice used for sushi would also get a boost. But Democrats objected to $21 billion in House GOP food-stamp cuts that would eliminate benefits for up to 1.8 million families nationwide, as well as the loss of free school meals for up to 210,000 kids.
Even under Senate legislation, which has the support of Democrats, families in certain states that calculate food stamps in a way that would be curbed would see their average monthly $508 benefit slashed by up to $90. Nationwide, about 500,000 households would be affected by that Senate cut, including tens of thousands in Massachusetts.
About 450,000 Bay State households — nearly 900,000 residents — rely on food stamps. They got $1.4 billion last year, an average monthly benefit of $132.51 per person.
The struggle over the farm bill illustrates the level of paralysis that has gripped Congress. It also reveals in especially stark detail the disparate fortunes of powerful business interests, with their high-priced lobbyists, and the economically needy.
"We're slicing and dicing the social safety net," said Joe Diamond, executive director of the Massachusetts Association for Community Action, which aims to help low-income residents. "We all understand the need to be within our fiscal limitations. But to cut this critical resource to the most vulnerable in society in a way that would hurt them shows that something is out of balance."
The farm bill, which historically was used to provide subsidies to farmers, was first passed in the 1930s and has generally been reauthorized every five years. In the 1960s, when rural populations declined and fewer members of Congress represented districts with farmland, food stamps were added to the legislation to gain more support from urban lawmakers.
In recent years, especially as more Americans were forced out of work by the 2008 recession, the food-stamp program has eaten up a greater share. Nearly 80 percent of the proposed farm bill spending would be set aside for food stamps and nutrition programs.
The bill historically has contained enough goodies to satisfy everyone. Soybean and corn subsidies for Midwestern congressional districts? Check. Subsidies for dairy, peanuts, and chickpeas (large and small)? Check, check, and check. Food stamps, which earn strong support from congressmen in poor, largely urban areas? Check.
In an era when fiscal conservatives have thrust austerity to the top of the agenda, however, opposition has grown to the price tag of $1 trillion over 10 years. Some Republicans are calling for further cuts in food stamps, a program they view as a government handout.
"When we see the expansion of the dependency class in America . . . it's a barrier to people that might go out and succeed," said Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican. "We don't want to hand these out to people that are gaming the system so to speak."
Representative James McGovern, Democrat of Worcester, recently spent a week living on a food budget that was equivalent to food stamps, spending $4.50 a day. He was chief sponsor of an amendment to restore the $21 billion in cuts to food stamps in the House bill. The amendment, which had the support of almost all of the Democrats but almost no Republicans, failed.
"The price of a farm bill should not mean making more people hungry in America; we are a better country than this," McGovern said. "If we do not stand for people who are hungry, who are poor, than what the hell do we stand for?"
Those who benefit the most from farm subsidies are farmers who grow corn in Iowa, soybeans in Minnesota, wheat in Kansas, and cotton in Texas.
Direct subsidies to farmers, a controversial program that critics say gives away federal money even if farmers aren't growing crops, would end. But in their place would be an enhanced insurance program and certain price guarantees.
Under the House bill, for example, farmers who grow Japonica rice would receive subsidies if the market price falls below 115 percent of the average price of all types of rice. Most of those farmers are located in California. Tim Johnson, executive director of the California Rice Commission, said that the guarantees were needed in a high-cost area.
"The question is, is there an appropriate place to make sure those farmers have a [price] floor so that if they have a couple of bad years they don't have to sell their farm?" Johnson said. "The objective is to keep farmers on the land farming."
As the House vote loomed, Republicans added amendments that drew ire from across the aisle. One would permit states to administer drug tests before approving a food-stamp application. Another would allow states to require recipients to either work 20 hours a week or sign up for job training.
Ultimately, only 24 Democrats supported the bill. That stood in stark contrast to the last time the House approved a farm bill, in 2008. At that time, the bill passed with 216 Democrats and 100 Republicans voting in favor.
The Senate version of the farm bill passed June 10 with overwhelming support from Democrats. It would cut food stamps by $4 billion over the next 10 years, instead of the House's $21 billion. The savings would come from several changes, including denying eligibility for lottery winners.
It would prevent states from exploiting federal rules in ways that increase access to food stamps. Currently 15 states, including Massachusetts, deploy those strategies and would be affected. Eliminating those practices would reduce benefits for about 850,000 households by an average of $90 per month.
It is unclear what will happen next. The House also failed to pass a farm bill last year, so the 2008 legislation was extended until Sept. 30, 2013. House leaders could choose to bring up the bill again, making changes to either satisfy Republicans who want more cuts to food stamps or Democrats who want fewer. They could also try to pass another extension.
"Watching the debate, the finger pointing about who did what to who is so frustrating, because the truth is, we've got to get somewhere in the middle," said Representative Pete Gallego, a Texas Democrat. "This should be a bipartisan product."