WASHINGTON — “It's a difference between those who are wearing dress shoes and those who are wearing boots,” U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin said. “I'm wearing boots.”
Mullin was referring to the members of his freshman class in the U.S. House who may be voting this week on their first farm bill. Mullin, a Republican from Westville who operates a ranch in addition to his plumbing company, understands the nuances of farm bill policy and politics.
Many of his colleagues don't. So Mullin — who “grew up around this stuff” — has been trying to educate them.
Because Mullin knows that it takes those wearing boots and dress shoes to get a massive farm bill through Congress — the boots for the complex programs that shape the markets for agriculture commodities and the dress shoes for the food stamp program that accounts for most of the bill's spending.
Linking the farm and social policy has for decades paved the way for consensus on multiyear farm bills.
Rural lawmakers write the legislation, and urban ones go along, generally without scrutinizing the arcane details of dairy and cotton programs.
But it's gotten tougher, as outside groups of all types have pressured lawmakers about the amount of spending, subsidies to wealthy farmers, environmental provisions and market-distorting protections.
The last two elections have brought waves of new members who don't like any of it.
Conservative and taxpayer watchdog groups are pressuring lawmakers to oppose the House bill and insist on separating the agriculture policy from the food stamp section so Congress can debate the merits of each separately and break up the rural-urban coalition.
Heritage Action for America, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, spent $50,000 on radio time in Rep. Frank Lucas' western Oklahoma district to criticize the legislation.
“Congressman Lucas can call a food stamp bill a farm bill, but it's still a food stamp bill,” the ad intones before urging listeners to call the Republican's office.
Dan Holler, a spokesman for the group, said there should be two different bills.
But Mullin said, “Neither one would be able to stand on its own.”
Safety net for farmers
“These outside groups try to panic and stampede members,” Lucas, R-Cheyenne, said last week.
Their ultimate goal, he said, is to kill the programs that serve as a safety net for farmers.
It will be up to Lucas, whose sprawling district includes much of Oklahoma's agricultural land, to get the bill through the House.
The easygoing rancher, who has helped write four farm bills since coming to Congress in 1994, is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. He worked a bill through his committee last year that made reforms to the food stamp and commodity programs.
But House Republican leaders wouldn't even allow the full House to consider the bill in the election year — possibly because they wouldn't have been able to muster the votes for passage.
So Lucas pushed another bill through last month that would save more than $20 billion over five years and even won the endorsement of House Speaker John Boehner, a longtime critic of farm policy.