By CHRISTOPHER BOSSO
It was one of those things that a only a political scientist with some background in congressional politics would notice: On January 29, 2014, the entire House delegation from Kansas – four Republicans – were among the 63 House Republicans who voted against final passage of the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013, more commonly known as the Farm Bill.
For most of you this fact might not raise an eyebrow, but for me it said volumes about the relative clout – the absence of it, actually – of the nation’s farm bloc even in a state so synonymous with agriculture that its official state seal has a farmer tilling the land. Legislators from states like Kansas always voted on the farm bill, even if they disagreed with some of its provisions along the path to final enactment, if for no other reason than to align their final vote with the economic interests of their constituents – farmers, and those whose livelihoods depended on a strong farm economy.
This is where the 2014 vote spoke volumes about the farm bloc, and about the locus of power in today’s Republican Party. First, all four of the state’s House members have served only since 2008, and three were first elected in 2010. As such, the Kansas House delegation aptly reflects the “Tea Party” movement that has reshaped the Republican Party in recent years.
Members of Congress usually are strategic in their voting. Yet, despite their comparative newness in the House, none of the four Kansans seemed to worry that a negative vote on the Farm Bill would hurt them at home. A look at the 2012 election suggests why: only one of the four got less than 60% of the vote at the same time that their districts went safely for Mitt Romney. So all four are solid Republican seats.
But it is the composition of those districts that bears closer examination. Despite our common view of Kansans as living on the farm, the four districts are roughly 72% urban in demographic terms. That is, the average Kansan, like the average American, lives in metropolitan areas, not rural towns, and the center of voting power in those four House districts is along the highways surrounding Wichita, Kansas City, and Topeka. In real terms, farmers make up a very small part of these districts’ voting totals.
Fair enough, but what about the symbolic dimension of voting against the Farm Bill? Even if there are relatively few actual farmers left in Kansas given the consolidation of agriculture into fewer and larger operations, agriculture is still a major part of the Kansas economy. By all estimates, the House leadership had the votes to pass the final version of the bill, so why not go along with the majority?
Here is where the ideologies of the four members come into play. My sense is that all four voted against final passage because the farm bill preserved most funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“food stamps”), which makes up 80% of the Farm Bill’s total spending over five years and is widely seen by conservatives as overly generous and rife with abuse. With comparatively few SNAP recipients in the four districts, few constituents likely pressed them to maintain program spending. Moreover, these members, like their colleagues, were willing to defy the House Speaker and kill the Farm Bill in June 2013 over the issue of SNAP spending. So they felt strongly enough about the issue that they weren’t willing to make a symbolic vote at final passage.
Given the exurban center of voting gravity in their districts, one doubts their votes on the Farm Bill will affect their reelection chances this fall. The interesting question is what they or their colleagues would have done had their votes been needed to assure final passage. Were they willing to sacrifice the commodity programs and other parts of the Farm Bill important to farmers and agribusiness on the basis of ideology? Or has the potency of the farm bloc ebbed so much that even House members from Kansas no longer worry about it on Election Day?
* With apologies to Thomas Frank
The views expressed are those of the author.