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Comment: House GOP could claim Farm Bill victory despite electoral defeat

Outgoing congressional representatives may deliver President Trump with a legislative victory before they head for the door

A week before American voters decided whether the midterm elections would deliver a red wave or a blue wave, OpenSecrets.org, the non-partisan group that tracks money in politics, made a spot-on prediction: the biggest wave on Nov. 6 would be green.

Think greenbacks, that is, because this year’s political candidates, OpenSecrets estimated, would spend US$5.2 billion on 2018 campaigns, a whopping 35 per cent increase over 2014 midterm spending.

Given the recent track record on Capitol Hill — no federal budget deadline met since 1998, failure to pass the last three Farm Bills on time, no balanced budget since 2001 — you’d think elective office would be a grim study in futility. Not so, says wave after wave of office seekers.

It’s no different at the state level. For example, earlier this year in Florida, six candidates for governor — two Republicans and four Democrats — spent US$84 million on television ads in just the primary.

Even more remarkable, the biggest spender in that race, Ag Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican, spent US$25 million only to lose to a dark horse congressman, Ron DeSantis.

But that’s chickenfeed compared to the billionaire-versus-billionaire governor’s race in my home state, Illinois. The eventual winner, J.B. Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt hotel empire, spent US$171 million of his own dough to beat the GOP incumbent, Gov. Bruce Rauner, a billionaire private equity investor, who spent US$50 million in his re-election bid.

Combined that means a staggering US$72 was spent on every vote cast in the governor’s race. Money may not buy happiness, but it sure did buy a lot of mud in one of the dirtiest campaigns ever run in a state known, ironically, for its rich dirt.

The biggest spenders nationally were Democrats. OpenSecrets estimated Dems outspent GOP candidates nationwide US$2.5 billion to US$2.2 billion. Democrats used that extra US$300 million to target incumbent Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives.

It paid off; Democrats recaptured the House after eight years in the wilderness. The margin of majority remains uncertain at press time, as several House races are too close to call. There’s no doubt, however, that old Farm Bill hands like Minnesota’s Collin Peterson, the House Ag Committee’s former chairman, can reclaim the top spot by simply asking for it.

That said, House Republicans must first decide if they want to give their ally, President Donald J. Trump, a key legislative triumph — a finished 2018 Farm Bill — before their power drains away.

That win appears attainable if the more conservative GOP House members bow in defeat: abandon their “work-capable” demands for certain food aid (SNAP) recipients so a final bill can move forward.

That’s a very big if because this stubborn group includes the unbowed president who supported the SNAP “reforms” on the fall campaign trail.

Still, Iowa’s Sen. Charles Grassley suggested his fellow Republicans do just that. The “House… better fish or cut bait and give up on that (SNAP reform),” he said, if it wants to have any input on any new farm law.

It’s practical advice for several reasons. First, few lawmakers look forward to starting the entire Farm Bill writing process anew when the incoming Congress is seated in January. Secondly, it delays completing any 2019 Farm Bill for months while also requiring Congress to pass (and the White House to sign) an extension of the 2014 law before this year’s quickly approaching adjournment.

On top of that delicate two-step, few suggest that any 2019 Farm Bill would be substantially different than the Senate’s draft 2018 bill that still hangs fire in Congress now. As such, asks one Capitol Hill friend, can cooler heads prevail and complete the 2018 bill as limping House Republicans head for the exits?

Sure, but that would require a purple wave of bipartisan co-operation in Washington which no one predicts any time soon.

The Farm and Food File is published weekly in newspapers throughout the U.S. and Canada.

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