Last week, the House rejected the Farm Bill (officially known as H.R. 2, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018) on a vote of 198 to 213.
Significantly, the reason it was voted down wasn’t primarily due to anything related to the bill. It was voted down because of something unrelated to it – immigration. Further, it was a group of Republicans that were key to defeating their own leadership’s bill.
The saga underscores the polarizing impact of immigration reform.
The Farm Bill is an important piece of legislation that determines a wide swath of policies in the Agriculture Department including commodity programs, trade, rural development, farm credit, conservation, agricultural research, food and nutrition programs, marketing and other areas. It is a multi-year bill that is only voted on twice every ten years. Importantly, it includes programs that are valuable to the floral and nursery industries.
Early this month, a group of moderate House Republicans filed a “discharge petition” which would force a vote on four different immigration bills. Under the petition, the bill that obtained the most votes over 218 would pass the House.
A discharge petition is a little-used method to circumvent the House leadership and bring legislation to the floor that the leadership does not necessarily want voted on. If 218 members of the House sign the petition, the legislation it calls for has to be brought to the floor.
If a discharge petition is successfully executed, it essentially signals that the leadership has lost control of the floor.
The bills that would be voted on under the petition would be the Securing America’s Future Act sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) which is supported by conservatives, a version of the Dream Act which would create a process for non-citizens brought to the US illegally while they were children (often referred to as “dreamers”) to obtain citizenship, a bipartisan bill that would provide dreamers with a process to obtain permanent legal status coupled with border security measures, and would allow Speaker Ryan to bring up a bill of his own choosing.
The month wore on and when the time to consider the Farm Bill arrived, the discharge petition had obtained 196 of the 218 signatures it needed and one of the Republican authors of the petition claimed to have “more than enough” other members who would sign the measure.
As support for the discharge petition increased as the Farm Bill vote approached, leaders of the conservative House Freedom Caucus demanded that Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) commit to a House vote on the Goodlatte bill by itself (as opposed to the process which would allow other bills as outlined in the petition) in exchange for their support of the Farm Bill.
The Farm Bill contained some provisions that were opposed by Democrats, so the legislation would have to be supported by almost every House Republican to pass.
No commitment to vote was made to the Freedom Caucus and they voted against the Farm Bill along with a number of Republican moderates.
In the end, the bill received no Democrat votes and was opposed by 30 Republicans.
Following the Farm Bill being voted down, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) said that the legislation will get a second vote June 22 after a vote on a conservative Goodlatte immigration bill earlier that week.
However, the method of voting on the Goodlatte bill may present a problem. The Freedom Caucus has been demanding the bill be considered by itself where the group pushing for the discharge petition has insisted that the four bills be considered at the same time.
Choosing one process over the other may ensure one or the other group’s opposition and lead to many situations where the House becomes even more unsettled and the Farm Bill’s fate in question (in addition to the fate of immigration reform).
Underlying all of this is the jockeying for the leadership of the House. Speaker Ryan is retiring at the end of this Congress. He has expressed his support for Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to be the next speaker. The Freedom Caucus has held deep suspicions about their positions on immigration reform.
How the Republican leadership handles the votes in the third week in June will be highly consequential for not only the Farm Bill and immigration reform, it may also determine the nature of the House in the next Congress.