Skip Navigation

How Democrats Won the Farm Bill

A public showdown. Two empty chambers. A fortune at stake. It’s not a wild west movie—it’s the escalation of political tensions that defined the 2018 Farm Bill. Passed roughly every five years since the Dust Bowl, this omnibus piece of legislation is a staple of the legislative process, containing a smorgasbord of agricultural policy and other policy that is less obviously agricultural. The 2018 bill clocks in at just under 800 pages and controls $867 billion in funding.

Policymakers have traditionally hailed the Farm Bill as an opportunity for bipartisan compromise, but the reality of last year’s process fell far short of these rosy expectations. Reflecting on partisan conflict, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), the ranking member of the Committee on Agriculture, opined, “This might be the last farm bill . . . It just seems like it just gets worse every time.” Surprisingly, the outcome of partisan negotiations over the Farm Bill ultimately favored Democrats who managed to secure funding for programs they support while dodging concessions to Republicans.

The previous Farm Bill, passed in 2014, expired on September 30 of last year. While a conference committee met that month to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions, it failed to produce a compromise before funding for some conservation and research programs expired on October 1. Disagreements over provisions in the House legislation which would have cut environmental program funding and implemented stricter work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) stalled committee progress. Yet, despite the House and Senate’s conflicting visions, on three consecutive days in December the Conference Committee presented a compromise, the Senate approved it, and the House did the same. Trump signed the Farm Bill into law on December 20, two days before the government shutdown began.

When the smoke cleared, Democrats emerged as the decisive victors in the battle of the Farm Bill, despite Republican control of both chambers. Nowhere is this clearer than in the dispute over work requirements for SNAP benefits. This Republican proposal in the House bill would have demanded 20 hours of work per week for certain recipients. Although SNAP includes work requirements for many recipients in the status quo, states often sidestep requirements by providing waivers that protect benefits on the grounds that jobs simply aren’t available. The House bill would have significantly restricted states’ access to these waivers, thus stripping benefits from their most vulnerable recipients. The Brookings Institute reported that this proposal would expose almost 80% of recipients to benefit loss because many people experience employment instability, though a majority of recipients work at some point over a year. It’s no wonder that the House version didn’t receive a single Democratic vote. Ultimately, the Senate version, which contained only negligible adjustments to SNAP funding, prevailed, following a string of victories that favored the moderate Senate proposals.

The conflict over conservation resolved in favor of Democrats as well. Environmentalist Democrats also walked away triumphant with full funding for the conservation measures, an impressive feat considering House Republicans would have cut this funding by almost $1 billion. The Farm Bill is the largest source of federal funding for private land conservation. The House bill would have eliminated the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), one of two national programs that subsidize farmers for employing conservation measures on land they use, such as planting cover crops to reduce erosion and runoff. Although the House bill would have compensated for some of the change by expanding aspects of the other main conservation program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the net effect would not have made up for the loss of the CSP. Democrats prevailed against all odds by protecting this program. It is also worth noting that Mitch McConnell’s very public pet project to legalize hemp for his Kentucky farming constituents benefits the liberal-leaning movement to loosen cannabis laws.

The bill takes a cue from the Republican House version by slightly expanding the massive agricultural subsidy system, which overwhelmingly funds high-income owners of factory farms—poor optics for an administration that has consistently struggled to live up to its populist aspirations, for example through corporate tax breaks. The bill also opens up new loopholes in the subsidy system which allow nieces, nephews, and cousins of farm owners to register for crop insurance and commodity subsidies, even if they haven’t actually worked on a farm. Proponents of the measure claim that it incentivizes these family members to enter agriculture, but this argument just comes off as out of touch. Struggling new farmers need reduced barriers to enter their profession, and these incentives do not meaningfully improve accessibility because they’re not targeted toward small farms. While the bill does strengthen a program aimed at supporting new farmers, Republicans can’t avoid the glaring contradiction that subsidy expansions will hurt the very farmers they’re purporting to assist by inflating land prices. Traditional conservatives in office know that bowing to the agriculture lobby does not reflect well on them, which is why some Republicans in Congress resisted these measures. One such critic, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-IA), voiced his frustration: “I’m very disappointed the conferees decided to expand the loopholes on farm subsidies . . . I’ve been trying to make sure the people who get the subsidies are real farmers.” Unsurprisingly, Caroline Kitchens of the conservative R Street Institute concluded, “There is not a single significant conservative win to be found in the entire 800-page monstrosity.”

The failure of conservative proposals to leave a significant mark on the resulting policy begs the question: How did Democrats win the Farm Bill? In the absence of a productive compromise, both parties defaulted to extending previous levels of funding. Because the last Farm Bill passed in 2014, while Democrats held the Executive and the House, the default policy reflected Democratic influence. Looking back even further, Democrats in both houses managed to pass the 2008 Farm Bill over George W. Bush’s veto to secure Democratic priorities.

There are two primary reasons that Republicans could not overcome divisions between the House and Senate. The first is simply time pressure: programs began to expire on October 1st. As Republicans faced the political fallout from a trade war with China that has harmed agricultural interests, funding the Farm Bill gained priority on the GOP agenda. If that didn’t light enough of a fire under Congress’ feet, the threat of a government shutdown certainly contributed. Legislators had to act quickly to pass a compromise before the shutdown dominated the Congressional agenda to the exclusion of other policy concerns.

Shifting political power also provided an impetus for passing the Farm Bill. Following the midterm elections on November 6, Republicans in the House knew they would lose their majority influence over the Farm Bill unless they acted immediately. Collin Peterson, the Democrat at the time expected to assume the chairmanship in the next Congress, is the House’s most conservative Democrat, according to GovTrack, and is a founding member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition. He feared incoming Progressive Democrats’ influence as much as many Republicans, which encouraged him to speed the bill’s passage.

Photo: “Wheat Field