Farm Bill Goes Down in Flames, but It Isn’t Dead Yet

Today we bring you a conversation with Rebecca Vallas, vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress and host of “Off-Kilter,” a podcast about poverty and inequality. Vallas discusses the death of the farm bill last week because of its cuts to nutrition assistance, and Republicans’ ongoing attacks against any program that helps families afford basics.

Sarah Jaffe: We are talking today because the farm bill and all of the nasty things that were hidden in it went down last week. Give us a quick rundown of what happened there and why it was important that it died.

Rebecca Vallas: For starters, any conversation about the farm bill has to start with the real beginning of the story, which was when Republicans rammed through the partisan tax plan that gave about $1.5 trillion in tax cuts to the wealthiest people in this country and to wealthy corporations. Now, it is part of their quest to turn around and dismantle health care and housing and nutrition assistance, all to pay for those tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.

One of the goals that they have had on their agenda for this year is to dismantle nutrition assistance and that is what the partisan farm bill that we saw actually go down in flames at the end of last week was an attempt to do. Make no mistake, what it would do is to end the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as we know it, in large part by targeting some of the people who are facing some of the greatest barriers and discrimination in our labor market: the older adults, parents with children who are over certain ages, as well as just low-wage workers themselves.

This is just part and parcel of their ongoing effort to divide and conquer and to make their attempts to dismantle programs that help people make ends meet into a “puppies and rainbows” sounding effort — similar to what Paul Ryan has been doing for years — to seem like they are helping the “forgotten man” and “forgotten woman” that Trump campaigned to help, but in reality, to actually go after those very people who are struggling most.

A little bit of background on what the SNAP program is: It used to be called food stamps. People might be familiar with that name for the program, but today it is called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It helps about 40 million Americans put food on the table in any given month. Now, the benefits that it provides are already extremely meagre — just $1.40 per person per meal. Just pausing there for a second. Imagine that as your food budget, but you have got Republicans in Congress saying, “Nope, that is too much. We have got to actually take some of that away from people who are struggling to put food on the table.”

What this farm bill would have done is to make a program that is already incredibly meager, where families already, by and large, report running out of food by the third week in the month…. make that program even harder to access for people when they are facing hard times. And the people that it targets, by and large, are people who are struggling to find work or can’t get enough hours in their job. That is who would be most hurt by this proposal….

We actually saw the bill go down literally in the middle of the voting. It seems like Republicans weren’t aware that they didn’t have the votes to pass the bill. So, we saw Democrats in lockstep say, “No, I can’t vote for a piece of legislation that takes food away from as many as 2 million Americans,” which is what this bill would have done. And we saw Republicans split between wanting to see the bill be even crueler and take even more food away from even more people. In some cases, in the case of moderate Republicans, we saw them saying, “Actually, I am realizing this is going to be bad for me in November.”

Polling that the Center for American Progress did earlier this year found that cuts to nutrition assistance are wildly unpopular, including with Republicans. Two-thirds of this country do not want to see cuts to nutrition assistance, including food stamps. I think that is the Petri dish that we saw come to a head last week and we did see the bill go down, literally, on the floor in the middle of the vote.

For people who don’t usually follow the progress of the farm bill, this is a thing that happens all the time. It contains a million different subsidies and programs and things like that and it usually passes with a lot of bipartisan support.

Traditionally, the farm bill, which authorizes SNAP, along with a range of agricultural components, is a really massive piece of legislation. Traditionally, the bill is bipartisan and that is something that we have seen in both the House and the Senate traditionally over decades. What we saw was a very different process this time in the house. We saw House Republicans draft the bill without any input from Democrats, not letting them be at the table at all, which is something that is very unusual when it comes to the farm bill…. So, almost completely unprecedented in terms of what we have seen around the farm bill. That was a big part of what, ultimately, caused it to go down on the floor….

There is a piece of the story that has been almost entirely dominating news coverage of the farm bill and why we saw it go down in the house last week, and that is that the House Freedom Caucus was effective in holding the bill hostage to the demands that they had, including on a really extreme immigration bill. That absolutely is part of what was going on…. But what is getting very little attention and which was a big part of the story of why this bill ultimately failed is that we did see Democrats completely unified in their opposition to this bill and it was because of the harmful SNAP cuts … that Democrats voted in lockstep against the legislation. That is a big part of why, ultimately, Republicans were able to muster the votes that they needed to pass the bill that they had crafted without any Democratic input.

Talk about the outside pressure on the Democrats to bring this down.

We have seen tremendous mobilization among pretty much every corner of the progressive community. It is an amazing time where we have been watching Republicans go after tens of millions of Americans’ health care for the better part of a year and a half. Actually, last week was another re-emergence of zombie efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, to roll back Medicaid expansion. We saw that rear its head yet again in the very same week where Republicans were calling a vote on taking away food assistance from 2 million Americans and dismantling the food stamp program as we know it.

But amid so much going on and conversations happening nationally about the very future of our democracy, we still manage to see just tremendous mobilization from pretty much every corner of the progressive community when it comes to telling members of Congress, “Hands off SNAP,” and that this is not the kind of country they want to live in — to let its people starve to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations….

A big part of what we are now seeing has actually driven moderates, in particular, in the House Republican Caucus to understand how toxic it is and how unpopular it is to go after this program. I think it has been conventional wisdom for a long time that Social Security and Medicare are the so-called third rail of American politics. I think that Republicans, in a lot of ways, are learning the hard way how popular programs like Medicaid and now food stamps are in the minds of Americans.

That opposition cuts across party lines. It is not just Democrats. It is Republicans, it is Independents, it is even Trump’s own voters who don’t want to see this program cut — in a lot of ways similar to how we saw widespread opposition and resistance to not just repealing the Affordable Care Act, but to dismantling Medicaid. In a lot of ways, Medicaid was actually what saved the Affordable Care Act.

I think Republicans are going to wake up and start to realize how popular nutrition assistance and, in turn, housing is. That is another program that we are watching massive and major attacks on, particularly from the Trump administration. We haven’t seen legislation introduced along those lines yet, but just a couple of weeks ago, we saw from Ben Carson a proposal to triple the nation’s poorest families’ rents and to take housing assistance away from jobless workers and people who can’t get enough hours at their job. Yet another shoe to drop in this ongoing attack on pretty much any program or policy that helps families afford the basics….

The last time you and I talked, we talked about work requirements, which are one of their favorite tools to cut everything from health care to housing to food stamps to whatever they can think of to cut. How are we seeing the move of work requirements being instituted in different places?

The concept of so-called work requirements is really a misnomer. What work requirements really are is harsh time limits on assistance for people who can’t get enough hours at their job or who can’t find work. Republicans call these policies “work requirements” because they know that sounds good on its face: the idea of working in exchange for something. But when you actually dig just a little bit beneath the surface, what you find is that counter to what Republicans would have us believe … not only are they not popular … we see majority opposition. That is actually true not just among progressives, it is true across party lines.

But the reason that we see Republicans pushing forward with this as the centerpiece of their agenda is they realize that it is an opportunity to try to reinforce myths about these programs that help people make ends meet, and the people who themselves receive assistance. Republicans recognize that these are popular programs and that their best chance at cutting them and getting away with it is to make it seem as though what they are doing is taking away assistance from people who are somehow freeloaders or who are the undeserving poor.

That is really what the push for work requirements is all about: trying to get Americans to think that the people who are being helped by nutrition assistance or housing assistance, or Medicaid for their health insurance are people who just don’t want to work and who need some kind of a kick in the butt to get them into the workforce…. In reality, what we are actually seeing is that by and large, these programs help seniors, they help people with disabilities, they help children. And the people who are working age who are helped by these programs are, by and large, people who are working, but who aren’t paid enough to make ends meet and who don’t have benefits provided by their employer to allow them to have health insurance and the other things that they need….

A study, which was released by United Way, found that nearly half of American households currently are not earning enough for basics like food and housing. That is not some “them.” That is not some class of other people who are on the wrong side of the tracks who made bad choices or whatever it is that Republicans are hoping we believe so that they will get away with trying to slash these programs. That is an “us”….

The Republican agenda depends on people not recognizing that fact. Not just because of their desire to slash these programs that they fundamentally and ideologically don’t agree with and don’t like, but also because of Republicans’ ongoing and continued refusal to raise the minimum wage. That is a big part of the story here. They are hoping we forget it. That is why we are seeing them continue to focus like a laser on this concept of so-called work requirements in pretty much every attack that they lob against programs that help families make ends meet.

The last time you and I spoke, we actually talked extensively about Medicaid, which is another space where they have really latched onto the concept of work requirements as their effort to slash the program. They realize in their efforts last year to repeal the Affordable Care Act and to dismantle Medicaid that it was going to be a lot harder than they thought when they set out on that quest, and recalibrating that they were likely to have a lot more luck going after Medicaid if they made it about so-called work requirements, and that is what we have been watching play out in the states where Trump now is allowing states to take away health care from people who can’t find a job or get enough hours to work for the first time in the Medicaid program’s five-plus decade history. That is why we are seeing that as the cornerstone of this agenda.

Some form of farm bill has to pass. What is the next step here?

In the coming days, we have heard that Paul Ryan may be trying to make another run at cobbling together the votes to pass this legislation. He has another couple of legislative days to try to do that. If he is unsuccessful, then, I think what we are likely to see is all eyes move to the Senate where there is a bipartisan process currently playing out to come up with their own version of the farm bill. We have Democrats and Republicans working together to draft some type of initial bid at their effort of what they think the farm bill should look like.

We’re likely to see that introduced in the coming weeks, and then I think it’s anyone’s guess what timeline we’ll see it play out — whether it ends up being before the midterms and Republicans are really trying to move something forward, there’s the potential for them to take steps in the coming weeks and months and then have to come back in the lame duck, to try to finish the business of actually getting this passed by both chambers. But there is a lot of interest on the Republican side in trying to get this done so they can come back to their donor class and their voters and say, “Look, not only did we manage to give tax cuts to the wealthiest people in this country and to wealthy corporations, but we also did something that we’re going to tell you is ‘welfare reform,'” which is their term for taking away the basics from people who are struggling to make ends meet.

But you also have a strong desire on the part of some Democrats to try to get something done because of the pieces of the bill that don’t have to do with nutrition assistance but have to do with farm subsidies and agricultural components of the legislation.

In this moment what we’re likely to see is attention shift to the Senate and the bipartisan process and that’s going to be the next step.

How can people keep up with you?

They can follow me on Twitter @RebeccaVallas. They can also listen to “Off-Kilter” — it’s the show about poverty and inequality and everything they intersect with…. You can find the show on Twitter @OffKilterShow.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.