Comment: Farm Bill And Immigration

The politics of the farm bill and immigration reform have many similarities, and the recent roller-coaster ride of the farm bill offers lessons for CIR advocates.

Yesterday, the House of Representatives approved the farm bill (with farmer price supports for rural lawmakers) by a vote of 212-206, with no Democratic ayes, and only 12 Republican defections. An earlier attempt in June to pass a bi-partisan farm bill (with food stamps for urban lawmakers, in addition to farmer price supports for rural lawmakers) failed by a vote of 195-234, with 62 Republicans voting "no", and only 24 Democrats voting "aye". The issue is whether a key Democratic priority - food stamps - will make it into the final statute. The Senate has already voted on a farm bill with food stamps, the two bills will now be conferenced. In an effort to address Republican concerns with the size of the food stamp program, the Senate bill trimmed it by a low-10-figure sum. That was nowhere near enough for House Republicans, and the original, failed, farm bill featured Democratic concessions to trim the food stamp program by a mid-11-figure sum. It is widely expected that the Conference committee will produce a bill with food stamps, and with a number very close to the Senate number, and that that conference report will win strong bi-partisan majorities for final passage into statute in the early fall. It is precisely this expectation that was the basis of strong opposition by some House Republicans, who feared getting steam-rolled in conference with the Senate. In fact, two influential right-wing think-tanks - the Heritage Foundation and the CATO Institute - key-voted this bill and urged "no" votes to many right-wing Republicans.

This is quite similar to the current situation with immigration reform. Here, the Senate has passed a relatively liberal bill, with legalization - a key Democratic priority. House Republicans are split - many of them want to pass an immigration bill without significant legalization, and a small minority among House Republicans don't want to pass any bill at all, fearing that broad legalization will get added in conference with the Senate. As in the Farm bill, Democratic House members are willing to go farther than Senate Democrats, in adding much tougher measures to legalization in an effort to produce a bi-partisan bill in the House. As was the case in the Farm bill, there is considerable doubt whether House Republican leaders will be able to corral their conference in adequate numbers to produce a winning majority for an immigration bill. Further increasing the similarities between the farm and immigration bills, the Heritage Foundation strongly opposes an immigration bill in the House, fearing that a conference with the Senate will steam-roll the House into agreement on legalization, it is entirely likely that the Heritage Foundation will key-vote a House immigration bill, and will urge a "no" vote on these grounds.

The lessons for CIR advocates from House passage of the Farm bill are two-fold: " Most importantly, the House Republican leadership is very much in command. While they may well waver from time to time, House Republican leaders are able to produce overwhelming majorities within their conference for their priorities, and win floor votes - the most critical test of leadership in a legislature. Therefore, to suggest that Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Cantor and other Republican leaders cannot deliver votes on an immigration bill, is misplaced. They very much want an immigration bill on political grounds, and they will likely produce one. " Very importantly, the politics of immigration reform in the House are much more favorable than the farm bill was in that same Chamber. While the farm bill that House Republicans eventually supported omits the food stamp title entirely, on legalization, many House Republicans want action, especially on DREAMers. While the Heritage Foundation is all by its own lonesome on immigration, it had more allies on the farm bill. Furthermore, the farm bill is not politically as important as immigration legislation.

Final passage of CIR into statute is not guaranteed, a conference committee might well get dead-locked and blow-up. That would allow all sides to point fingers at every other side, and the political impact on the 2014 elections would get neutralized. However, House passage of some immigration legislation appears nearly certain. The House Republican conference will have to find its own way, with small bore bills, or a rule rolling these bills into one, with small bore legalization of DREAMers, or a more expansive legalization vision. House Democrats will play an important role, like they did on the Farm bill. Making a statute is a messy exercise and it will be no different with immigration. Making a statute is also a lengthy exercise, but we are quite optimistic that 2013 will feature a signing ceremony on immigration by President Obama. You heard it here first. Share your thoughts by writing to

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