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Congress is as predictable as the weather

Editorial

It’s pretty clear that the middle is getting squeezed in Congress these days, where the slogan seems to be: “Everything Except Moderation”

The latest victim of lawmakers’ inability to give and take — the failure of the House to pass a new farm bill, the first time that type of legislation has flopped in four decades in the House.

What caused the agricultural train wreck was perhaps one of the oddest coalitions so far to develop in Congress — hard-line conservatives and equally hard-line liberals, whose ranks have been swelling as moderates have continually been squeezed out in recent years. In fact, it seems that working with “the other side” is seen by both ends of the political spectrum as a sign of weakness in a lawmaker.

The Senate had proposed $4 billion in cuts in its farm legislation, but the House version cut much deeper into social programs — another $16.5 billion in food programs for the poor, which would have resulted in 2 million Americans receiving fewer or no food assistance.

Democrats, including Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, felt the House version was too severe and too saddled with amendments to support it. Conservative Republicans, meanwhile, felt the cuts and rules didn’t go far enough.

Three amendments cited by Bishop were the implementation of drug testing for receiving SNAP benefits, work requirements for those receiving assistance and lowering SNAP benefits for families if the recipients are convicted of certain crimes. As an aside here, numerous employers require their workers to submit to pre-employment drug screenings and random testing during their employment. We’re not sure why testing someone on public assistance for drug use is “criminalizing” recipients of food assistance paid for by taxpayers, while drug testing workers is not.

The result was a lopsided defeat that leaves the agriculture industry wondering what will happen next. It appears that lawmakers have finally succeeded in one ignoble area — they have finally achieved a level of unpredictability that exceeds that of the weather. Cooperation and working for the common good, it appears, remains a drought condition on Capitol Hill.

The House legislation was scuttled by a 234-195 vote, with support from 171 Republicans and a scant two dozen Democrats. Opposed were 172 Democrats and 62 Republicans. Georgia’s delegation saw eight lawmakers — three Democrats and five Republicans — join Bishop in voting against passage. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, was joined by three Republicans and a lone Democrat, John Barrow, D-Savannah, in supporting the bill.

The questions now are, what happens next?

The answer is something will be done — at least, we think so — whether it’s passage of a new bill or an extension of the current legislation. Failure to do one or the other by the end of September would result in farm legislation reverting to the arcane law passed 64 years ago that, among other things, would likely double the price of milk.

We wouldn’t be surprised if negotiations between the House and Senate went to the 11th hour on Sept. 29. We also want to believe Congress hasn’t reached the point where lawmakers would circle the wagons in their respective camps and be so derelict in their duties that that they would allow something as critical to the nation as its farm and food assistance legislation to get tilled under.

But then, we didn’t think they’d let the sequester take effect, either. As scary as the thought is, the sequester may have just been the first gust of an ill wind that could blow the food right off American tables.