WASHINGTON -- A strange-bedfellows U.S. House coalition on Thursday brought down the massive farm bill, which would have cut $20.5 billion from the food stamp program -- too much for liberal Democrats and too little for conservative Republicans.
The 234-195 vote to defeat the five-year, $940 billion measure came after multiple amendments to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP -- commonly known as food stamps -- were voted on Thursday. Sixty-two Republicans, or more than a quarter of the caucus, voted with Democrats to defeat the bill.
The failure was a stinging defeat for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who continues to have trouble marshaling GOP support he needs to pass major legislation. Without his party's solid backing, Mr. Boehner must rely on some Democratic support, which deserted him Thursday. The result also was a setback for House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who had guided the legislation.
Mr. Boehner, who voted in favor, had hoped to begin work on a compromise with the Senate, which passed its version last month. The Obama administration said it could not accept the House bill because it cut too deeply into the food stamp program and did not significantly overhaul crop insurance and other farm subsidies.
In Pennsylvania's delegation, eight Republicans voted yes, while five GOP fellows and five Democrats voted no.
In states such as Pennsylvania, where agriculture is a major part of the economy, farmers and those in the agriculture industry were left with uncertainty and frustration. Pennsylvania is the 20th most productive state when it comes to net agriculture receipts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.
But advocates of those who receive SNAP benefits saw it as a victory. "We are pleased that Congress has heard the voices of hungry people and the people who stand with them and voted down this farm bill. It would have not just levied devastating cuts on SNAP funding, but included amendments specifically designed to humiliate SNAP recipients," the Pittsburgh-based anti-hunger organization Just Harvest said in a statement.
"Think of the 87-year-old woman living in a subsidized high-rise who would have to take two buses to get to a lab so she can pee in a cup in order to receive her food stamps. Why didn't they propose drug testing the people who get millions in dollars of farm subsidies and crop insurance?" Just Harvest's statement said. "Passing this farm bill would have been a moral outrage and a clear abuse of the poor and hungry in America."
The House bill would have cut projected spending in farm and nutrition programs by nearly $40 billion over the next 10 years. Just more than half, $20.5 billion, would have come from food stamp cuts. Both the House and Senate bills would have eliminated $5 billion a year in direct payments to farmers, made whether they grow crops or not. The money saved would be directed into a $9 billion crop insurance program.
The nearly $75 billion-a-year food stamp program was the focus of most farm bill debate. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who led the opposition, said the cuts were too deep. "The price of a farm bill should not be making more people hungry in America or criminalizing people who need help," he said.
Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Samantha Krepps said the agency was disappointed. "The Corbett administration worked hard with the Pennsylvania delegation in Washington on the farm bill," she said. The bill's failure won't have immediate implications, however, because the current bill extends to Sept. 30.
Pennsylvania farming and agriculture groups were concerned about the lack of a bill, but hopeful that House Republicans and Senate leaders might eventually strike a compromise.
"I'm one of the [optimists] who thinks they'll get something worked out," said Chris Herr, executive vice president of Penn Ag Industries Association, a trade group. "If there's a silver lining for Pennsylvania, [it's] because we are such a diverse state and don't just rely on a couple different crops; it doesn't have the net impact on Pennsylvania that it would have on many other states."
He was speaking of the bill's commodity protection provision, which would have spent $40.1 billion over 10 years to shield farmers against price fluctuations in corn, wheat, soybean, cotton, rice and peanut crops, as well as changes in dairy prices.
But just because that provision doesn't impact Pennsylvania farmers to the same degree as those in California or Iowa doesn't mean other provisions aren't crucial. The crop insurance aid provision, which would give farms $93 billion more over 10 years to buy a crop insurance deductible, is meant to help cushion farmers against the proposed elimination of most "direct payments" farmers have been receiving each year.
Pennsylvania farmers also hope any compromise will include a provision to allow fruit and vegetable growers to participate further in the government's subsidy program. The USDA now considers fresh fruits and vegetables as "specialty crops," ineligible for most farm subsidies.
"Farmers in Pennsylvania are disappointed that the House did not pass the farm bill," said Mark O'Neill, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, a trade group unaffiliated with any government agency. He said they've been "waiting for a long time for some type of certainty" to plan for years ahead.
Smaller farms, some represented by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, "don't see this as a critical piece of legislation," said Brian Snyder, that association's executive director.But he said the bill was "flawed" by design in that it forcibly intertwines $191 billion in farm subsidies with the food stamp and nutrition programs, which accounted for 80 percent, or $744 billion, of the House bill. "If that historical alliance is breaking down a little bit, it might actually be a good opportunity," he said, for new thinking about how to separately subsidize America's hunger programs and its agricultural industry.
Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, was disappointed but not surprised that the bill failed, because 102 floor amendments muddied the legislation and provided disincentives enough for both parties' members to vote no. "There were amendments that in the end a lot of people couldn't support," he said. "But I don't think this is the end of it.
Mr. Murphy considered the bill's proposed cuts sensible and said they could have been absorbed by rooting out fraud and abuse, including a practice known as "heat and eat," by which states automatically enroll food stamp clients if they qualify for as little as a dollar's worth of home heating assistance. In other cases, he said, food stamps applicants aren't being required to report their assets, adding, "The system should be there to help the poor, not to be abused."
Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, voted no. The bill included good reforms, he said, but "given our $17 trillion national debt, it did not go far enough to control spending and reform these programs, and I could not vote for it."
Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, said the bill was "far from perfect," but still better than current agriculture policy and wasteful spending.
If the bill returns to the floor, Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, is hoping for a much different version. "The idea that we would vote for a bill that gives subsidies to corporate farmers while cutting poor peoples' food stamps is outrageous," he said. "I don't know how you square that.
"[Agriculture panel chairman] Frank Lucas is a good guy, but he was in a lose-lose situation because of the right wing of his party. They didn't vote for the bill because it didn't cut enough for them. There was never going to be enough decimating of the [food stamp] program to satisfy the Tea Party wing of the Republican caucus," Mr. Doyle said.
Bill Toland: email@example.com or 412-263-2625. Kate Giammarise: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-4254. Tracie Mauriello: email@example.com or 703-996-9292. The New York Times contributed.