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Rural lawmakers face fury back home
Stalled farm bill deals tough blow to Republicans facing re-election
Farm-state members of Congress have campaigned for decades on the back of farm bills delivering election-season subsidies and other goodies to rural voters.
Not this year. The bill is stalled, primarily because House GOP leaders don't want a noisy fight over food stamps this close to the election. That poses a particular problem for some Republicans in tight races for the Senate or the House who will go home empty-handed when Congress adjourns this week.
Democrats are gloating.
"It's something that should have been easy," says Heidi Heitkamp, the Democrat running against Republican Rep. Rick Berg in a neck-and-neck Senate race in North Dakota. "Something that should have been done did not get done."
Ms. Heitkamp and other Democratic challengers are using the farm bill as an example of how they say the Republican-run House is ineffective. Current farm law, which extends subsidy payments to farmers and pays for food stamps, is scheduled to expire Sept. 30, with no new law in place for the first time in recent memory.
In addition to the effect on the North Dakota race, the failure to get a farm bill is affecting the Senate race in Montana and House races in Iowa, South Dakota, Colorado and Illinois.
Farm policy has traditionally been one of the more bipartisan issues on Capitol Hill. It still is, to an extent — the Senate in June passed the five-year farm bill with almost two-thirds of the chamber supporting it. A separate version passed the House Agriculture Committee in July with Republican and Democratic support.
Calling it a farm bill is something of a misnomer. Food stamps make up roughly 80 percent of the costs in both versions. The House would cut them 2 percent, angering many Democrats who don't want them cut at all and Republicans who say they should be cut more. The Senate version would cut them by half a percent.
Since 2008, the food stamp program has more than doubled in cost, to $80 billion a year, driven by high, sustained unemployment, rising food prices and expanded eligibility under President Obama's 2009 economic stimulus law. Food stamps now help feed roughly 46 million Americans, or 1 in 7.
It is unclear how angry rural voters will be about the lack of a farm bill. The farm economy has been strong in recent years, and expiration won't mean an immediate loss of benefits for most farmers. But farm-state members argue that the certainty of federal policy is necessary for farmers making their annual business plans this fall and approaching bankers for loans.
Punting the bill may also mean less money overall. While both chambers' versions of the bill would save tens of billions of dollars from current spending, the agriculture committees may be asked to save even more as budgets tighten further next year.
"They are concerned there will be fewer resources if we do it next year, so they worry it will hurt their crop insurance," Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, said of farmers in his state, where he and Rep. Tom Latham both face serious challenges from Democrats.
Mr. King and Mr. Berg — along with Republican House colleagues Denny Rehberg of Montana, Kristi L. Noem of South Dakota and others — have made repeated appeals to House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and other GOP leaders to bring the Agriculture Committee's bill to the floor before Congress adjourns this week.
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