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Behind the scenes at the Capitol—and beyond, by Grace Segers

Farm Bill’s Food Stamp Generosity May Be a Bridge Too Far for Some Freedom Caucusers

Divisions over relief for food insecurity remain a big sticking point as lawmakers try to move this must-pass measure over the goal line.

Tom Williams/Getty Images
Representative Glenn Thompson, chair of the House Agricultural Committee

The continuing resolution to keep the government funded through early next year includes an extension of the farm bill, a massive package of legislation that governs key agriculture and nutrition programs. The farm bill, which is approved roughly every five years, was extended at current levels through the end of September next year.

Congress is regularly late to approve the farm bill, so lawmakers aren’t excessively concerned about an extension. Representative Glenn Thompson, the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, told me that the yearlong extension had more to do with the need for stability in key programs than any pessimism about negotiating the bill in a timely fashion.

“We’re not looking to wait until September to do a farm bill. We have to extend it that far because of the complexities of some of these agricultural programs,” Thompson said. Although some farmers have worried about leaving reference prices to trigger crop insurance at 2018 levels in the year 2023, Thompson and other members believe that extending the bill is better than having nothing at all.

Representative Jim McGovern, a Democratic member of the committee, offered the faint praise that the extension was “clean.” “There’s no right-wing, MAGA, bullshit culture-war attachments to it,” McGovern said. “It gives our farmers and and it gives people who rely on nutrition programs some peace of mind that this won’t all come crashing to a halt anytime soon.”

Another Republican member of the committee, Representative Zach Nunn, echoed that sentiment. “I think it’s incredibly important that we provide certainty for our farmers,” Nunn said. “I’ve already got guys back in Iowa who have made decisions on what they’re going to plant, how they’re going to harvest, what livestock operations are going to look like. And so giving them a long runway is important.”

The farm bill is a traditionally bipartisan measure, bolstered by a marriage of rural agricultural interests and nutrition assistance advocates. The largest part of the farm bill is also the most controversial: the nutrition title, which includes funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, more colloquially known as food stamps. Members of the conservative Freedom Caucus have vented their spleen about the farm bill extension, indicating that spending on SNAP is a nonstarter for them.

“The farm bill itself represents everything that’s wrong with Washington, because the farm aspect of it only comprises about 25 percent of the bill,” said Representative Bob Good, a member of the Freedom Caucus. “You’re hijacking, holding hostage, the farm portion to the welfare part of it.”

The bill that raised the debt limit in June included tightening of work requirements for able-bodied adults without children up to a certain age, although it also strengthened exceptions. However, some conservative Republicans believe that SNAP needs to be further adjudicated. Representative Barry Moore, another member of the committee and of the Freedom Caucus, said that it was “certainly possible” some conservative Republicans would withhold their votes due to their frustrations with SNAP.

Thompson told me that any opposition to the farm bill based on wanting to cut SNAP further is “unfortunately out of ignorance.” “People that really don’t understand the program, they’re not aware of how the program actually works and the changes and refinements that we’ve made—significant ones—earlier this year,” said Thompson.

Representative Don Bacon, another GOP committee member, predicted that Democratic votes would make up for opposition from hard-line Republicans.

“A lot of them come from agricultural areas, so it totally eludes me,” said Bacon.

Vibe check: No rest for the WIC

The continuing resolution keeping the government open through early next year did not include emergency funding for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, commonly referred to as WIC. The Biden administration had requested an additional $1.4 billion to maintain the program amid an increase in participation and an uptick in food costs.

Like the continuing resolution passed in September, the one considered by Congress this week includes flexibilities to keep WIC afloat in the near future. But that’s only a short-term solution, said Nell Menefee-Libey, the public policy manager at the National WIC Association.

“I​​t’s something of a BandAid on a bullet hole, because we’re really borrowing against the program’s future, and jeopardizing the long-term stability and flexibility to serve families,” Menefee-Libey said. “It’s really, really discouraging that Congress hasn’t indicated that they intend to maintain the tradition of full funding for the program, and that has engendered a lot of uncertainty.”

Democrats are worried over the future of WIC, but they currently lack a clear answer for how they will keep the program afloat. “We’ll be searching for a way to get that funding, but when you look at what’s happening in the House, where it’s considered a miracle to get a C.R. passed … that’s a daunting challenge,” said Democratic Senator Peter Welch.

The emergency funding for WIC, while a priority for many Democrats, was not on the top of the list for Republicans. “If the Democrat allegation is that the C.R. does not meet every single one of their policy desires, they’re right,” said GOP Representative Dusty Johnson. “I’ve yet to see a legislative vehicle deliver every single win that any single person wanted. Welcome to the game.”

McGovern argued that his Republican colleagues did not appreciate the urgency of the situation. “They have no clue. Either that, or they don’t give shit. It’s one or the other, and both are unforgivable,” he said.

Menefee-Libey said that state directors administering WIC “maybe do not have the faith that Congress will fully fund the program.”

“If we, God forbid, get to January and have a full-year appropriations vehicle that doesn’t fully fund the program, then state directors would be in the position of having to turn folks away for the first time in nearly three decades,” she said. “So new moms in the middle of a national maternal health crisis will lose access to WIC, as well as, the kids on the program could also be turned away. It’s just a disastrous result.”

Vibe check: Let them fight

The House has been in session for 10 weeks in a row, and the Senate for five weeks. And lately, perhaps in part due to pent-up frustration from having to actually go into the office, lawmakers are getting a little punchy—literally. The girls are fightingggg.

This week, Representative Tim Burchett, one of the eight Republicans to vote to oust Kevin McCarthy as speaker, was left fuming after McCarthy elbowed him in the back. (McCarthy denies it was intentional.) Meanwhile, in the upper House, Senator Markwayne Mullin challenged a witness at a hearing to a fistfight. And to round out the ill-tempered shenanigans, Representative James Comer, the chair of the Oversight Committee, called Democratic Representative Jared Moskowitz a Smurf.

And that was all on Tuesday.

GOP Senator Kevin Cramer expounded on the bad vibes in Congress, writing the chaotic mood down to the fact that it was just about time to head home for Thanksgiving recess. When I pointed out that most Americans don’t have the luxury of getting cranky just because they’re forced to work multiple weeks in a row, Cramer noted that Congress was filled with strong personalities. (Democrats will mention that this week’s perpetrators were all Republicans, but some of them also have a history of public sparring.)

“There aren’t a lot of shrinking violets in Congress. You got here by telling everybody you’re better than the other person and bragging on yourself,” said Cramer. “It’s not concerning to me. I think it’s plenty entertaining. I tried to keep it a little bit above that myself, but even I’m capable, every now and then, of losing it.”

Other senators were not as equable. Democratic Senator Tina Smith told HuffPost that “this kind of behavior is unacceptable.”

“I actually got up and left before it was over because I was so upset by what Senator Mullin did. It’s a result of people having bad judgment who don’t seem to be able to detach from a policy disagreement,” Smith said.

Men (in Congress) will literally threaten violence in the hallowed halls of the Capitol instead of going to therapy.

What I’m reading

The Confederate general whom all the other Confederates hated, by Eric Foner in The Atlantic

The lie of “deinfluencing,” by Rebecca Jennings in Vox

The final frontier for helicopter parents, by Juno DeMeio in The Cut

What happened to ‘woke’? How the right’s rallying cry faded away, by Dave Weigel in Semafor

What does the Kennedy name mean now? by Maura Judkis in The Washington Post

How Trump and his allies plan to wield power in 2025, by Jonathan Swan, Maggie Haberman, and Charlie Savage in The New York Times

The latest culture war starts with dead whales, by Molly Taft in The New Republic

Pet of the Week

Today’s pet of the week is Sundae Breeze, submitted by Ali Feldman. She’s a very social pup: According to Ali, you can find Sundae on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

Emotions Are Running Feverishly High in Congress

“People are full of sadness and rage and hurt, and nobody does their best work in that environment,” said Representative Becca Balint.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib
ALI KHALIGH/Middle East Images/AFP/Getty Images
Representative Rashida Tlaib spoke at an October 20 rally at the U.S. Capitol calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.

Congress is a political body of more than 500 people with varying agendas and priorities. As such, its functioning is often influenced by emotion more than clinical analysis. This has been particularly true in the past month, after Hamas launched its  massacre of 1,400 Israeli citizens and took roughly 200 people hostage. In the weeks since, Israeli strikes have killed more than 10,000 people in Gaza, including more than 4,000 children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

“What I have been saying for weeks is, everybody is acting from the amygdala right now. People are full of sadness and rage and hurt, and nobody does their best work in that environment,” Representative Becca Balint, who has called for a humanitarian pause in the conflict, told me. “I don’t want to say people shouldn’t feel what they feel, but we need to really think strategically about this entire region.” 

The United States has traditionally been Israel’s strongest and most vocal ally, and as The Washington Post’s Abigail Hauslohner notes, supporters of Israel have had more success in swaying lawmakers. But the toll on civilians in Gaza has begun to concern the White House and some Democrats in Congress. As the weeks have stretched on, the latter have called for a “cease-fire” or a “humanitarian pause.” On Wednesday, dozens of congressional Democrats sent a letter to the White House calling for temporary protections for Palestinians due to concerns about civilian casualties, the Associated Press reported.

“There’s a growing consensus that we have to help Israel to make a series of choices that enable them to forge a path forward for peace, and enabling humanitarian aid is a fundamental strategic goal,” said Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who called for a humanitarian pause last month. “If you want Israel to be safe and stable, you cannot have millions of internally displaced refugees. The world appropriately rallied around Israel on October 7, and in order to maintain international support, they have to demonstrate that they are abiding by the Geneva Conventions and our basic expectations.” 

The Democrats who support a pause are also quick to point out that it differs greatly from a cease-fire: The former is a brief break in the conflict to allow the delivery of aid, and the latter is open-ended. “Cease-fires are long-term cessation of hostilities, and that would allow Hamas to regroup and attack Israel again,” said Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. 

But efforts to pass aid to Israel have been complicated by political considerations. President Joe Biden’s supplemental funding request to Congress also included funds for Ukraine and the southern border, as well as humanitarian aid to Gaza. The Republican-controlled House, under newly minted Speaker Mike Johnson, narrowly passed a partisan $14 billion stand-alone bill supporting Israel—plus cuts to the IRS that would actually increase the deficit, meaning that it’s a nonstarter in the Democratic-majority Senate. Moreover, Republicans in the Senate say they will not accept any aid package that doesn’t address immigration.

“In the end, we’re going to support Israel, and we’re going to support our friends and allies in Taiwan and Ukraine, and we’re not going to do that without a strong immigration and border provision,” said GOP Senator Roger Wicker.

Meanwhile, there’s been a lot of heated rhetoric in the House. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz caused an uproar among House Democrats for saying that the 15 representatives who voted against a resolution affirming support for Israel don’t “have a soul,” CNN reported. Representative Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American serving in Congress, was censured by her colleagues—including several Democrats—on Tuesday for her comments that Palestine would be free “from the river to the sea,” which is interpreted by some to mean support for ending the existence of Israel.

“I can’t believe I have to say this, but Palestinian people are not disposable. We are human beings just like anyone else,” Tlaib said in an impassioned speech on Monday. “The cries of the Palestinian and Israeli children sound no different to me. What I don’t understand is why the cries of Palestinians sound different to you all.”

Meanwhile, a Democratic proposal censuring  GOP Representative Brian Mast for his comments comparing Gazan civilians to Nazis was pulled from consideration on Wednesday. Mast did not back down, saying on Tuesday, “I would challenge anybody to find a better word to compare them to than the word ‘Nazi,’ because they only live next to Jews so long as they can find a convenient way to kill them.” 

OK, I know that’s a long lead-up, but there’s a lot of nuance here. Despite the differing opinions on cease-fire vs. humanitarian pause—and on where American eyes should be focused—lawmakers I’ve spoken to on both sides of the aisle insist that there is agreement on strongly supporting Israel.

“I think Democrats are unified in that we all want to save as many lives on both sides: Israeli lives and Palestinian lives,” said Representative Gregory Meeks, the Democratic ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “I don’t think anyone is arguing that Israel should not go after Hamas. We are concerned about the people that are caught in the middle.” 

But that agreement doesn’t make passing aid any easier—particularly given that Congress needs to focus first on passing government funding legislation to avert a shutdown on November 17. The emotions involved only further complicate an already difficult situation.

“I have very strong feelings about protecting Israel and getting the support they need. It just feels like one of those issues where we can’t fail,” Murphy told me. “I probably can’t do justice to the metaphysics of Israel support.”

Vibe check: Capitol Hill

Israel, Ukraine … Taiwan? 

While several elements of the White House’s funding request incur strong feelings among lawmakers, one aspect is generally accepted as uncontroversial: around $2 billion for the Indo-Pacific region, and specifically Taiwan. The idea is to bolster Taiwan as a counterweight to China and further prepare for any potential conflict. But, unlike in Ukraine and Israel, the prospect of escalating tensions is almost entirely theoretical.

“It’s not a hot spot right now. If it was a hot spot, it would probably be more controversial,” said Senator Ben Cardin, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, about the provision to offer aid to Taiwan. Which raises the question: If it’s not an immediate issue, why is it part of the supplemental agenda?

“I think there’s just a strong bipartisan awareness that helping Taiwan defend itself is in the interest of the region, the world, and the United States,” Senator Tim Kaine told me. “It may not have the urgency, but it is bipartisan, and it’s seen as critically important.”

GOP Senator Mike Rounds further explained that aid to Taiwan pertains to the American “defense industrial base” and “getting the resources that would be available for buildup in the Taiwan region.” In this vein, the White House also said their supplemental proposal as a whole would invest around $50 billion in the U.S. defense industry.

One can almost imagine the ghost of Dwight Eisenhower tapping the sign: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Vibe check: Campaign trail

OK, this week’s newsletter does include a little something on Tuesday’s elections. I chatted with Heather Williams, the interim president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, on Wednesday. Here are some excerpts from our conversation, condensed and lightly edited for clarity. 

Inside Washington: What do you think are the biggest takeaways from Tuesday night?

Heather Williams: Virginia voters resoundingly rejected the Republican agenda and Governor Youngkin in the state [and showed] that abortion remains a cornerstone issue in the states, and that the role and the impact of state legislatures on people’s lives have never been clearer.

I.W.: Speaking of abortion, why do you think that it was so pivotal in this year’s elections? And how do you expect to see its importance going forward? 

H.W.: The Dobbs decision threw this issue to the states; they made it really crystal clear. Voters voted in November of 2022 against abortion bans, and we’ve seen that continue. 

[Voters] care about it because Republicans are just dead set on banning abortion. They do it the minute they get power, the minute their power changes. We saw this in North Carolina with the legislature: The first agenda item the new Republican supermajority had was to ban abortion.… Voters knew in Virginia that they would go to the polls on Tuesday, and if they woke up with a Republican majority in their state House, that there would be an abortion ban.

I.W.: Looking ahead to 2024, what are the biggest states that you’re paying attention to? Are there any really critical state legislative elections coming up?

H.W.: We’ll have a number of special elections that will still come at the end of the year.… We joke that if it’s a Tuesday, there’s an election. So we’ll have those as we start the year. And then as we move into 2024, we are going to be ensuring that we’re returning our majorities in the Minnesota House, the Michigan House, and the Pennsylvania House. And that we are building new majorities in Arizona, both chambers in New Hampshire, in the Pennsylvania Senate, working to build majorities there. And then we’re going to be looking at ensuring that we are getting Democratic governors, those newly elected and those that we expect to elect in 2024 in North Carolina: the veto pen. That’s really, really important, and it’s really important for not only the issue of abortion in the states, but also a governor having the ability to block these really extreme Republican agendas.

What I’m reading

I may be a political reporter, but my second love is art criticism and culture writing. Here are some of my favorite long-form stories I’ve read lately, political and otherwise:

Priscilla confronts a creepy Elvis, by Andrew Marzoni in The New Republic

Is Tommy Tuberville the most ignorant man in D.C.?, by Cameron Joseph in Rolling Stone

The next generation of law students is obsessed with Lina Khan, by Marcia Brown in Politico

Joe Lieberman will not leave his fellow Democrats alone, by Kara Voght in The Washington Post

Are ‘Elf’ and ‘Love Actually’ the last holiday classics we’ll ever get?, by Esther Zuckerman in The New York Times

Women played an unprecedented role at the Pope’s synod. Will it make any difference?, by Paul Elie in The New Yorker

Pet of the week

OK, I know everyone has already been subjected to photos of my cat, Pumpkin, both in The Run-Up and on X, né Twitter. But come on, look at how cute he is! (Don’t forget to email me with submissions of your own pet.)

This article first appeared in Inside Washington, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by staff writer Grace Segers. Sign up here.