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The Flip-flopper’s Guide to “Fiscal Conservatism”

Thursday, July 18, 2013


Less than a month ago, the farm bill went down to unprecedented defeat on the House floor when 62 Republicans and 172 Democrats voted no.

The bill would have expanded crop insurance without significant reform, set incredibly high target price guarantees for cotton, peanuts and rice (and an even higher one for sushi rice), gutted funds for programs that protect land and water and slashed food assistance for the poor by $20.5 billion. The price tag? Almost $1 trillion over the next decade.

Knowing that, it’s not so surprising that the measure was rejected overwhelmingly. 

Fast-forward three weeks to July 11, when for the first time since the 1970s the House of Representatives passed a “farm only” farm bill. It contained all the sections of a typical farm bill except the Nutrition title that funds food stamps (now officially known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or SNAP). 

How did this version pass? Seventy-four members of Congress switched their votes (including two who voted no the first time but didn’t vote on July 11), with the result that for the first time for as long as anyone can remember, a farm bill passed the House on a straight party line vote. The 24 Democrats who had supported the full farm bill all voted no on the “farm only” version, while 48 Republicans who had voted against the full bill flip-flopped and supported the stripped-down measure.

The price tag for the “farm only” bill is nearly $200 billion over 10 years, thanks in large part to the expanded crop insurance and target price guarantees. That’s a crop insurance program where taxpayers pay:

  • an average of 62 percent of farmers’ crop insurance premiums;
  • up to $1.3 billion a year to subsidize the highly profitable crop insurance industry; and
  • a significant amount of the losses when farmers file claims.

Under the best-case scenarios, crop insurance alone is expected to cost taxpayers $9 billion over the next 10 years.

So who are the 48 Republicans (see full list) who voted for this lavish taxpayer funded giveaway?

Thirty-eight are members of the conservative Republican Study Committee – including the current chair and immediate past chair. The RSC, as it’s known, is dedicated to less government, personal responsibility and individual freedom. It’s tough to see how a crop insurance program that has taxpayers paying for such generous subsidies without annual limits and without restrictions for the biggest agribusinesses, meets any of the tenets of what is considered the home of the most conservative members on Capitol Hill. 

Think about the insurance you buy for your car or home. If the government paid an average of 62 percent of your premium, you would chase the subsidy, not listen to the marketplace. That’s hardly in line with principles of less government, personal responsibility and individual freedom.

Let’s take a closer look the 48 GOP flip-floppers. Nine of them, all members of the Republican Study Committee, are in their first term in Congress (although Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas previously served in the mid-1990s), and six of them have scores of at least 90 percent on the Heritage Action Scorecard so far. According to its website, the Heritage Action Scorecard “measures votes, co-sponsorships, and other legislative activity to show how conservative Members of Congress are.” The other three freshmen who switched to support the “farm only” bill all had scores of at least 80 percent.

In the last Congress, 12 members who voted for the “farm only” bill also got scores of at least 90 percent from Heritage Action. So over the two sessions, 18 of the 48 flip-floppers had at least a 90 percent score and 29 had at least an 80 percent score from one of the most conservative organizations in Washington.

Some of the flip-floppers didn’t comment specifically on the “farm only” farm bill or haven’t updated their websites in quite a while. But a review of their stances on federal spending show that overall, these are all legislators who want to cut government spending dramatically.

So why the flip-flop? It’s pretty clear that these members only care about cutting farm bill spending when it comes to nutrition assistance for those who most need help. Twenty of the flip-floppers voted against an amendment by Rep. Ron Kind that would have reformed crop insurance by instituting reasonable payment limits and means testing for farmers while cutting the subsidy to the insurance industry. That bipartisan amendment would have saved $9 billion over 10 years and came agonizingly close to passing. 

The other 28 Republican flip-floppers did vote for the Kind amendment, but when push came to shove and the House Republican leadership twisted arms, they decided that it was fine to lay “reform” on the backs on the neediest Americans while allowing the biggest agribusinesses to keep on collecting billions of taxpayers dollars without limit. 

The fact is, the proposed $20.5 billion in cuts to nutrition assistance in the full farm bill probably wasn’t enough for many Republicans. Don’t forget that the House had previously passed the so-called Ryan Budget, which calls for a $123 billion cut to SNAP. In the face of united opposition to the “farm only” bill from groups as diverse as the R Street Institute, the American Farm Bureau, and hundreds of others, these self-styled “fiscal conservatives” flip-flopped and voted for a bill that expands crop insurance without significant reform and sets incredibly high target price guarantees for a truck load of commodity crops.

And where will the money for these extraordinarily generous programs come from? You guessed it: taxpayers.


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