To know how far relationships have broken down in Congress, consider this: Just as lawmakers should have been negotiating furiously to nail down the 2018 farm bill, a $489 billion behemoth that would fund agriculture and food assistance for five years, Minnesota U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, the longtime ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, heard nothing but silence.
“No meetings, no calls, no letters — not for the last six weeks,” Peterson told an editorial writer. In 27 years in Congress, he said, “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Even when the farm bill went down in defeat earlier this month because of division among Republicans, he said, “Nothing.”
For a half-century, the farm bill has been the very essence of political compromise. By design it knit together the interests of rural and urban lawmakers, joining farm subsidies to the federal food stamp and school meal programs. That proved a durable coalition for many years. But it has been fraying for years because of increasingly extreme partisanship and now, Peterson said, may be collapsing.
What finally torpedoed the bill was not just President Donald Trump’s insistence on stricter work requirements for mothers of young children, some seniors and others — which Democrats opposed — but conservative House Freedom Caucus efforts to push through a bill opposed by many in vulnerable GOP districts that would radically curtail legal immigration.
Even though Republicans need Democratic votes to get the farm bill through a narrowly divided Senate, House leadership stubbornly refused to compromise on elements repugnant to Democrats, such as the tougher work requirements, Peterson said. That left the bill vulnerable to being taken hostage by far-right members. They withheld their votes, knowing leadership would not get help from Democrats.
That scenario, Peterson believes, would not have occurred years earlier, when at least a modicum of bipartisanship and common interests would have prevailed. Cracks started in 2008, he said, and have only widened since then.
It may be that the 2018 farm bill’s seeming demise may go unmourned. Peterson points out that spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and most farm subsidies are locked in. Unless the bill is resurrected — which could still happen — current law will remain in effect, thankfully sparing SNAP recipients from the worst GOP proposals.
Nevertheless, this is another indication of a Congress so polarized as to be ineffective. Even when their party wants policy changes, and controls Congress and the presidency, Republicans are so set against compromise that they forgo the ability to enact their agenda. That is not the sign of a healthy democracy.
The nation’s founders never intended for this to be a winner-take-all system. Checks and balances are designed to foster a balance of power and drive competing interests to find common ground. It’s a value that those who venerate the Constitution should relearn.