Farm bill, check! Is Congress, at last, finding a way to do its work?

With Tuesday's Senate vote, Congress sends a long-disputed, $956 billion farm bill to President Obama's desk. That's on top of a recent budget deal, and an omnibus spending bill.

Danny Johnston/AP
A farmer tills a field in preparation for spring planting near England, Ark. Ending two years of political battles, Congress on Tuesday gave its final approval to a five-year farm bill that provides food for the needy and subsidies for farmers.

Count ‘em. Three bipartisan agreements in Congress in two months: a budget deal, a spending bill, and now, a long-delayed, long-argued, nearly $1 trillion farm bill that passed the Senate Tuesday, 68 to 32, and is ready for President Obama’s signature.

Political polarization in Washington has yet to melt into a puddle of brotherly love, but at least some of the basic work of the people is getting done – in contrast to the partial government shutdown that angered millions of Americans last October. Some in Congress are even hopeful that the bills approved so far will spark a bit of trust and lead to other deals, such as on the debt ceiling or even immigration – at least before the heat of the election season descends on Capitol Hill.

“The fact that we have an agreement on the farm bill, that we had an agreement on the budget, and that there’s been indications they might be willing to move ahead on immigration – it’s very positive,” says Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota.

The senator attributes some of the progress to the backlash from Americans after the partial government shutdown. “People had just had it, and we’re getting some more bipartisan work on these major issues that have been sitting around for just way too long.” 

Approval ratings for Congress plunged 11 percentage points during last year's government shutdown, to a record low of 9 percent, according to a November Gallup poll.

The willingness of House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio to “stand up to the tea party” last December “was a big deal,” Senator Klobuchar said. Mr. Boehner endorsed the farm bill in the House, despite objections from conservatives over its costs. It passed last week 251 to 166.

In contrast to 2011, when Boehner and a new House GOP majority held out for dollar-for-dollar spending cuts for every dollar increase in the debt limit, now the speaker seems willing to raise the debt limit – which expires on Friday – rather than threaten default. “There’s no sense picking a fight we can’t win,” he reportedly told his Republican colleagues in a closed caucus meeting Tuesday morning.

The farm bill also had its Senate dissenters – 23 Republicans and nine Democrats voted against it. Liberals say an $8 billion cut to the food stamp program, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is too severe. Conservatives objected to wasteful spending – particularly as described by Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, in which 10 percent of the biggest farmers get 70 percent of the benefits.

The bill represents compromise and some small reform. It ends subsidies that were paid whether a farmer planted or not – but it expands the crop insurance program. It avoids the steep SNAP cuts that House conservatives wanted (nearly $40 billion), but was double the $4 billion cut originally called for by the Democratic-led Senate. It promotes land conservation, nutritious fruits and vegetables, and still manages to save $16.6 billion over 10 years – a modest saving, but a saving nonetheless.

“It wasn’t revolutionary at all. But they got it done and, I’m telling you, in this world that is no small achievement,” says Dan Glickman, a secretary of Agriculture under President Clinton and a former congressman who is now with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

Discouraged Americans might rejoice with Mr. Glickman, but they shouldn’t get too carried away. The farm bill is traditionally the most bipartisan – make that nonpartisan – piece of legislation that Congress considers. The dividing lines aren’t so much red versus blue, but regional or crop-specific. The fact that this bill was bogged down for some two years reflects the tenacity of polarization that has come to define Congress.

Passing a farm bill, raising the debt ceiling, budgeting – these things are supposed to be the routine work of Congress. Now “each one of these ordinary events is proclaimed to be a bipartisan miracle,” says Ross Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. The five-year farm bill is an accomplishment, sure, he says, but compared “to what Congress ought to be doing effortlessly, it’s nothing at all to rejoice about.”

These accomplishments don’t, for instance, portend a willingness in Congress to work through the tough issues facing the country. The budget agreement negotiated by Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington and Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin at the end of last year nips and tucks at the deficit, but doesn’t address the long-term drivers of the $17 trillion national debt – entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security. The farm bill does not plan for long-term, sustainable food production in a world with a growing population and changing climate.

Yet some lawmakers hope that the baby steps of recent weeks will lead to more baby steps – perhaps even bigger ones. Senate Republicans and Democrats are apparently still discussing a bipartisan solution to extend unemployment insurance. Both parties in the House and Senate are working on an infrastructure bond that would be paid for by repatriated corporate taxes. Senator Grassley may not have liked the farm bill, but he told the Monitor that perhaps the bipartisanship expressed in that legislation might well spill forward to immigration reform.

 “Anytime there’s a major bipartisan effort here that succeeds, I think it gives momentum to other such efforts,” says Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan. He, too, hopes recent progress will rub off on immigration legislation.

[Editor's Note: The original version of this article misstated the number of bipartisan agreements passed in Congress in two months.]

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