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June 22, 2013 3:37 PM SNAP! It’s a Different Political System

By Ed Kilgore

Nancy Pelosi began her remarks at Netroots Nation having some fun at John Boehner’s expense at the “amateur hour” represented by the Farm Bill Fail earlier this week. She noted in particular that the GOP leadership took a huge risk by adding the Southerland Amendment to the bill—a real provocation to House Democrats—and then couldn’t even deliver the votes of those in their own conference who insisted on “reform” of the SNAP (food stamp) program.

A lot has been written about the implications of the Farm Bill fiasco for immigration legislation, or more generally, for Speaker Boehner’s odds of survival in his job. That’s all legitimate and important, but it’s worth reflecting a bit on the failure to enact a Farm Bill as a sign of what a different political environment we are living in these days.

The multi-year Farm Bill is the ultimate, eternal, iconic example of “must-do” legislation put together in a messy, log-rolling process full of impure but essential compromises. Ideological issues—particularly the long battle for and against farm subsidies—have always played a part in Farm Bill politics, but regional and commodity issues have predominated, and no fight was vicious enough to prevent final enactment for more than a session or so.

That’s all changed now, and it must be shocking to the many interests affected by the Farm Bill. How’d you like to be the lobbyist for some minor commodity or conservation program or rural development initiative, and beaver away at your tiny corner of the legislation for years, only to discover you’re in the crossfire of an ideological gotterdamerung over SNAP? It’s gotta be disorienting.

And for that matter, SNAP itself was relatively non-partisan not so long ago, and enjoyed passionate support from agricultural interests in both parties.

Back during the wild period of conservative ascendancy in the first two years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when congressional Republicans and a crucial minority of Democrats were getting behind massive omnibus bills remaking major areas of the federal government, one of the most revolutionary proposals from the administration was one that would have “swapped” federal and state responsibilities for safety net programs. According to OMB director David Stockman’s blueprint, the feds would take over the portion of Medicaid serving the elderly, while the portion affecting low-income families—along with AFDC (“welfare”) and food stamps—would be turned over to the states. The proposal died a quick and brutal death when Senate Finance Committee chairman Bob Dole said “no!” to any major changes to the food stamp program. That wasn’t any aberration either; Dole had worked closely with George McGovern to enhance and defend the future SNAP in the Senate.

That’s all history now, as are many other assumptions those of my own generation long made about partisan politics and its limits.

Just now Pelosi talked about the shocking willingness of all but a handful of House Republicans to vote against a defense authorization bill—a defense authorization bill!—because of their opposition to the policy overturning “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

And that’s why I just have to shake my head when so many pundits so frequently predict, with no real evidence, that the “culture wars” are safely in the rear-view window. Culture-based ideological warfare has a firmer grip on the Republican Party than ever, and it has expanded to virtually every policy front. The “fever” may break, as the president piously hoped before his re-election. But for now, its persistence is a much better bet than any resumption of the old familiar ways of governing.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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