A new farm bill likely won't pass until legislators are able to cobble together a majority coalition in a politically divided Congress, which in turn reflects a divided country and a divided farm bill constituency, says Carl Zulauf, an agricultural economics professor in Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
The Republican-led House defeated the five-year, $500 billion measure by a vote of 234-195, with many Democrats concerned about $20.5 billion in cuts to SNAP and other food nutrition programs. On the other hand, 62 Republicans voted no because of concerns about the cost of the bill.
The Senate passed a version of the farm bill June 10, with some $2.4 billion a year in cuts and a $400 million annual decrease in food stamps, which is about one-fifth of the House bill's proposed food stamp cuts. The Obama Administration had said it supported the Senate version of the farm bill but indicated that it would veto the House bill.
So now, Zulauf says, the real question is, "What do we do from here?"
"It's not clear why individual members voted against this bill – the SNAP program was an issue, as was cost," he says. "But in my experience, few legislators vote against a bill for a single reason.
"It's really important to understand the broadly divergent individual reasons lawmakers voted against the bill. Only by attaining this understanding can you arrive at a compromise that will pass. The objective is to get a bill passed. The farm bill is an omnibus bill and thus has to satisfy a broad range of constituency concerns in order to move the bill forward."
Going forward, the House Agriculture Committee could come up with a new farm bill formulation and then move through the process, although most observers think this is unlikely at present, Zulauf says.
"Or the House could take up the Senate farm bill and vote on it with no amendments. If it passes, then we would have a farm bill," he says. "But it is likely the House won't pass the Senate version since the House-proposed farm bill differed from the Senate farm bill.
"So that leaves the possibility of a one-year or multi-year extension of some version of the previous farm bill. That's something that we will have to keep an eye on over the next couple of weeks."
The 2008 Farm Bill extension expires in September.
Some policy actors have said that the farm provisions should be in a separate bill with the SNAP program in its own bill.
"I raise caution against separating the bill because as it stands, it makes the connection between farming and the consumption of food," Zulauf said. "Also, if you remove nutrition programs from the farm bill, will there be enough interest from legislators who don't have farming interests in their communities to get a farm bill passed?
"Separation of the bill could lessen broad-based support to get a farm safety net passed."