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.
Another top House leader from a California farming area is working hard for the bill.
“I've come a long way with (House) management,” Lucas said.
Lucas also has been talking to the rank-and-file members for weeks, trying to convince them that the only reforms they're going to get reforms and savings to farm and food stamp policy is through his legislation. The bill eliminates many duplicate programs, kills the controversial program that sends out regular payments to people who might not even be farming and makes it harder for states to manipulate eligibility for food stamps.
Mullin said he's been helping Lucas, telling members that the overdue bill also is necessary to bring some stability to the markets for crops.
Both of Oklahoma's senators voted against the farm bill that passed the Senate last week and is similar in many respects to Lucas' bill. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, has criticized the amount of food stamp spending in the bill.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, complained in an interview that he and other senators were severely restricted in what changes they could propose. Coburn had several amendments that didn't get votes.
Coburn has supported only one farm bill in his time in the House and Senate — the 1996 legislation that was supposed to represent a more free-market approach to planting crops — but he said he “came close” to voting for this one. He said he agrees with the movement toward crop insurance as the primary safety net but doesn't want taxpayers on the hook for such a big part of the premiums.
Groups like Taxpayers for Common Sense also have been highly critical of the generous subsidies for crop insurance premiums — nearly two-thirds of the cost is paid by taxpayers no matter how big the farm — and it's the kind of “corporate cronyism” in the bill criticized by Americans for Prosperity.
Lucas is optimistic
The House farm bill would cost about $100 billion a year, with 80 percent of that going to food stamps, a program that has doubled in size since the recession and President Barack Obama's stimulus plan.
Lucas and his committee pared about 3 percent from projected food stamp spending. Conservatives said it wasn't enough. Some Democrats and outside aid groups said it was too much.
“The House version of the farm bill would be particularly devastating for low-income Oklahomans, many being children,” said Kevin Hagan, president of Feed The Children, an Oklahoma City-based charity.
Lucas noted that the bill got support from nearly all of the Republicans on the committee and a majority of Democrats.
And when it goes to the floor next week, Lucas said he believes the traditional coalition that has pushed through the last several farms bills will hold one more time.
“I'm more optimistic now than I've been at any time in the past year,” he said.
Highly popular in the 32 counties that he drives around regularly to hold town hall meetings, Lucas expressed little concern that he's being targeted by groups like Heritage Action and the Club for Growth, which has judged him too liberal for the district.
If the choice for his constituents, he said, is trusting a Washington-based political advocacy group or one of their own, “I think they'll take the Oklahoman.”