WASHINGTON — The pairing of crop subsidies and food stamps for decades was a politically effective strategy that helped move both through Congress with broad bipartisan support.
Rolled together into the farm bill, the programs garnered support from urban lawmakers focused on feeding the needy and rural lawmakers hoping to provide farmers and ranchers some security in the face of natural disasters, price drops and other potential calamities.
But in the past year or so, this traditionally powerful coalition has unraveled.
Some are calling to split off food stamps from the farm bill, which comes up every five years, in the hope of freeing the way for crop insurance and other agriculture programs to reach the president's desk. Others say such a move would be a mistake and only complicate matters in the future.
The cost of food stamps has doubled since 2008, fueled by a deep and stubborn recession and efforts to get more people signed up.
Those nutrition programs now cost about $80 billion a year, or roughly 80 percent of the spending in the Senate-approved farm bill.
Conservative House Republicans looking to rein in the nutrition assistance blocked the bill from even coming to the House floor last year.
When the farm bill was defeated on the floor last month, many put the blame on a last-minute amendment that would allow states to impose work requirements on the food stamp program.
Democrats said that was the last straw, and only 24 of them voted for the bill.
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., voted for the farm bill last month but said that the disagreements over food stamps are what's keeping the farm bill from moving.
“There's no doubt that the 80 percent of the bill which is nutrition programs is bringing down the farm bill, the 20 percent or 18 percent of it that's actually farm,” Terry said.
Terry said he backs a proposal that's been floated by other House members to separate food stamps from the crop subsidies and other agriculture-specific sections of the bill. He said taking that step would likely get the farm programs approved.
Such a move could appeal to many in the farming community, where there is deep frustration over the situation.
“There's a natural reaction to say 'Well, if we separate them, then we can get the farm part of it done and then let the other side of it take care of itself,' ” said Steve Nelson, head of the Nebraska Farm Bureau.
Craig Hill, a farmer in Milo, Iowa, and president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, expressed similar sentiments.
“You do feel a little bit like you're held hostage,” Hill said.
But Farm Bureau officials said it would be a bad move to break up the team at this point. Even if lawmakers could push through a bill this year without food stamps, doing so would undermine the long-term viability of the farm bill because it could cost the support of urban lawmakers down the road, they said.
“Maybe it would get us through this farm bill, but then in five years, what do we have?” Hill said.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, would generally be considered ideologically similar to those looking for much deeper cuts to the food stamp program. But he also represents quite a few farmers and is a member of the Agriculture Committee.
He voted in favor of the farm bill last month and he argued against splitting the two parts of the bill for a reason different from the Farm Bureau.
Without any legislation addressing food stamps, their cost will only continue to grow, he said.
“We can't let them continue to spend billions in this way without accountability,” King said.
It remains to be seen whether the separation proposal will get any traction. Even though he's a proponent, Terry said he thinks it's unlikely Congress will move in that direction.
Instead, lawmakers could pass another one-year extension of the current farm bill, just as they did previously. Or, House GOP leaders could take another stab at putting a bill on the floor.
In the meantime, those in farm country just want some long-term certainty for those planting the crops.
“All sides need to resolve that issue, and it will require compromise — which is what our system is about, and that's been very difficult to come by,” Nelson said.