Editorial: The farm bill and other failures


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Last week, the Senate-approved farm bill failed to pass in the House of Representatives, leaving the fate of the legislation uncertain. The current farm bill, which sets agricultural subsidies and funds the federal crop insurance and SNAP programs, is scheduled to expire at the end of September.

The collapse in the House is only the most recent setback to hit the farm bill. In 2012, a similar Senate plan died in the House. The size of the SNAP program, better known as the food-stamp program, is the usual partisan sticking point. The House Republicans would like to dramatically scale back the program, but the Senate bills have offered only modest cuts.

Congress’s failure to renew the farm bill is but one of the many failures that threaten to damage the material well-being of millions.

Congress has also failed, for example, to address the impending interest rate jump on federally subsidized student loans. The rate on these loans will jump from 3.4 to 6.8 percent on July 1 if Congress does not act in the next few days, increasing the debt burden on many of America’s college students.

With respect to immigration reform, the prospects are only slightly brighter. On Thursday, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration-reform bill with bipartisan support. But the House’s Republican leadership has expressed a desire to carve up the Senate’s plan, leaving the future of immigration reform up in the air.

All of these fights are centered on issues on which there’s at least some degree of bipartisan consensus. On other, more controversial issues, there is no hope of legislative debate, let alone action.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act — the rule requiring some parts of the country to seek federal approval to change their voting rules — on the grounds that the map identifying areas with a history of prejudice was outdated. Congress could reinstate this part of the law by drawing a new map, a prospect that seems impossible in a highly partisan era.

So, we are left without basic protections against discriminatory voting rules.

And on climate change, one of the most pressing issues of our time, Congress is entirely impotent. In many ways, the executive action-heavy climate change plan put forward by President Obama this week is a response to this inaction in Congress. The last, best hope for sweeping climate-change action was killed by conservative opposition in 2009, when it was still controlled by the Democrats.

All of this raises a troubling question: When Congress refuses to solve the problems that deeply affect the short- and long-term well-being of millions of people, what are we supposed to do in response? We’ve tried to “throw the bums out,” but neither party has proven itself capable of answering the major problems of the day — immigration, climate change, civil rights.

It is a testament to Congressional inaction that the relatively conservative Supreme Court has become the most dynamic force for change in the United States. That alone should be an indicator that the system is not functioning properly.

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