The House GOP’s Farm Bill and policy influence


Much has been written about the abhorrent farm bill that passed the Republican-controlled House yesterday. In case you missed the news; lacking the ability to pass a bill that followed the longstanding tradition of including food stamp (SNAP) funding along with farm subsidies, the GOP took the unusual step of separating the two. Which part did the bastion of small government conservatism have enough votes to pass? Well, the part that spends 195 billion over the next ten years subsidizing big ag-business and a segment of Americans whose incomes are typically higher than the average person. It’s a move that even disappointed Heritage. As Matt Yglesias wrote, then, it’s not question of whether to spend the money but on whom. Yesterday’s HR 1947 proved that the GOP’s priority is most definitely not oriented towards hungry, mostly working, Americans who struggle to feed themselves on the typical monthly assistance of $133.41.

Yeah, the whole situation is a proverbial briar patch. Yet it’s also relevant to a subject I’ve written about before — the role of income in policy influence.

The premise itself is simple; public policy is responsive (i.e., legislative outcomes) to the interests of the wealthy and not so much towards the top concerns for everyone else. This idea isn’t just off-the-cuff populist rhetoric, it’s a matter of some empirical study, as Derek Thompson notes today; “When the rich and the poor disagree on policy, Marty Gilens has shown, Washington basically sides with the rich.” He includes this helpful graph (click to enlarge):


How does this happen? As Thompson reasons, politicians spend in an inordinate amount of time soliciting private resources in order to campaign. Which is to say, the wealthy end up financing much of our political system and — crucially — influencing who’s concerns are addressed when public policy is shaped. This isn’t to say that such outcomes can only be caused by straight-forward or crude lobbying. Indeed, as Jeff Spross writes, it may be that “money shapes the structure of our social experience, which in turn determines who we do and do not extend empathy to.” That’s a particularly dispiriting perspective and a pernicious framework for ignoring most people’s problems. Moreover, it’s an issue exacerbated by the fact that the single greatest tool for getting politicians to pay attention to your needs is left unused by too many poor Americans; voting.


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