Even conservative House Republicans have finally had it with the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank that has aggressively pushed Republican congressmen to the right.
National Journal reports that the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative House members with deep ties to Heritage, has banned Heritage employees from its meetings. They’re mad that Heritage tried to kill a farm subsidy bill that Republican House members very much wanted to pass back in July.
I’m no fan of Heritage. But here’s what’s maddening about this fight: Heritage is not only right about the farm subsidy issue, they’re advocating a consensus view among policy experts all across the political spectrum.
In 2011, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation commissioned long-term federal budget proposals from six think tanks spread across the political spectrum, from Heritage on the right end to the Economic Policy Institute on the left. The proposals diverged widely in most areas, from taxes to entitlements to defence. One of the few areas of agreement among all six proposals was that farm subsidies should be reformed and reduced.
Yet the farm bill that passed the Republican-held House this summer barely changes farm subsidy programs. It cuts direct payments to farmers, but offsets much of that cut by increasing the generosity of crop insurance, another mechanism of subsidizing agriculture.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates the net effect of the House plan would be about a 6% cut in farm subsidy programs. (That’s actually a slightly smaller cut than Senate Democrats want, and much smaller than President Obama has proposed.) But that estimate assumes that crop prices stay high, like they are today. As the Mercatus Center notes, if prices fall back toward their long-run averages, the House bill will actually make farm subsidies more generous.
When the House tried in July to pass a comprehensive farm bill including a reauthorization of the food stamp program, 62 House Republicans rebelled because the cuts weren’t deep enough. (The Republican plan included about a 3% cut in food stamps along with the 6% cut in farm subsidies). Because most Democrats voted against the bill on the grounds that it cut too much from food stamps, it failed.
Then, House Republicans separated the bills and passed a farm subsidies-only bill with just 12 Republican defections. Heritage infuriated House Conservatives by issuing a “key vote” against the bill, arguing that it did not align with Heritage’s (perfectly reasonable) principles for reforming and reducing farm subsidies.
In other words, about a third of the House GOP caucus is so committed to cutting food aid to poor people that they wouldn’t vote for a bill with only modest cuts to that, even though their leadership really wanted them to. But 94% of House Republicans were willing to vote for a bill that maintains status-quo corporate welfare to farmers, and they’re furious that meddling outsiders tried to stop them.
The RSC’s problem with Heritage isn’t that it’s trying to push the GOP too far to the right to be competitive in elections. Their problem with Heritage is that they’re interfering with the GOP’s effort to put special-interest politics ahead of conservative principles.
House Republicans do not actually care about free markets or cutting government. They care about pleasing their electoral constituencies and getting re-elected. Old people tend to vote Republican, which is why House Republicans have built their last two campaigns around attacking President Obama with claims he was cutting Medicare. Almost all rural areas are represented by Republicans, which is why Republicans don’t want to cut farm subsidies.
Internal critics of the Republican party are trying to push it in a variety of directions. Tea Partiers, like the people at Heritage, want the party to cut taxes and spending much more aggressively. Libertarian populists want to refocus around an anti-corporate welfare message. Squishy “reformists” like me want to make peace with progressive taxation and the welfare state while cutting regulation.
One thing all those camps can agree on is that farm subsidies should be slashed. If that’s the issue on which the House GOP is most inclined to defend existing spending and smack down outside critics, that bodes very poorly for any effort to make the GOP more competitive and more relevant.
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