The House Agriculture Committee released its 2018 farm bill Thursday with proposals to reshape the nation’s largest domestic food aid program, consolidate conservation efforts and tweak farm aid.
The bill arrives amid controversy over its focus on shifting funding within the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, into work and training programs.
Agriculture Chairman K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, scheduled a markup for the bill (HR 2) April 18. It does not have the support of Democrats, who worry that some states could use the tougher work requirements in the bill to push thousands out of the program by making it difficult to meet the terms.
“The farm bill keeps faith with our nation’s farmers and ranchers through the current agriculture recession by providing certainty and helping producers manage the enormous risks that are inherent in agriculture,” Conaway said Thursday in a statement. “The farm bill also remains faithful to the American taxpayer and consumer. Under the farm bill, consumers will continue to enjoy the safest, most abundant and most affordable food supply in the world, and taxpayers will reap the more than $112 billion in budget savings projected under the current law.”
The five-year farm bill reaches into virtually every aspect of the rural economy and into the broader U.S. economy by setting policy for programs and research addressing food safety, nutrition and the environment. The current farm bill (PL 113-79) expires at the end of September.
Committee aides said the baseline or pool of authorized funding is less than the $954 billion available in the 2014 bill, the last time a farm bill was authorized. The Congressional Budget Office is expected to release its own cost analysis for the overall bill as well as scores for sections of the bill.
The chairman can probably move the bill to the floor with just Republican votes, but it is unclear whether the SNAP provisions are enough to win support from the conservative Freedom Caucus and pass the legislation out of the full House. Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., said Thursday. “I think we can pass it.”
Another wild card in the offing is President Donald Trump, who signed an executive order on Tuesday directing federal agencies to focus on ways to move participants in means-tested programs such as housing and SNAP into work. Trump could help or hinder House GOP support for the legislation with a tweet.
Conaway said he is focused on finding 218 votes to get the bill passed by the full House. He bristled when told by a reporter that ranking member Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., said the nutrition title will cost Conaway Democratic support and possibly cause urban Democrats to back expected amendments to curb federally subsidized crop insurance when the bill goes to the floor.
Conaway said Democrats would have to explain their actions to farmers, adding that they could choose to help a farm economy that has seen income fall more than 50 percent since 2013 and SNAP recipients work their way off the program by voting for the bill.
Peterson broke off talks in March with Conaway on the nutrition title because committee Democrats said they were concerned about what they have heard about the proposals.
“It makes no sense to put the farmers and rural communities who rely on the farm bill’s safety net programs at risk in pursuit of partisan ideology on SNAP,” Peterson said in a statement Thursday. “Between record low farm incomes, and the escalating threat of a trade war and other market disruptions, farmers have enough to worry about. Breaking up the long-standing, bipartisan, urban-rural farm bill alliance is a dangerous and unproductive step that will only sow division and jeopardize both this and future farm bills.”
Peterson told agricultural reporters on Tuesday that he likes some provisions in the bill but thinks the work-related provisions in SNAP are unworkable.
“The money being put into work training is a sham. Basically, it is designed to be a hassle factor so people will drop out of a program,” Peterson said.
Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., said concerns that the bill is designed to cut SNAP rolls are unfounded. “The nutrition title is about helping those who are struggling,” said Thompson, who is chairman of the subcommittee on Nutrition.
The contention over SNAP, which accounts for about 80 percent of farm bill spending, is likely to overshadow other changes farm state lawmakers consider more relevant to their farm constituents.
For example, the popular Environmental Quality Incentives Program would absorb the Conservation Stewardship Program and receive a $3 billion per year boost over the life of the farm bill. EQIP is a working lands programs, which means participants can continue to grow crops and raise livestock on the enrolled acres while also taking steps to protect soil, water quality, vegetation or wildlife.
The Conservation Reserve Program would be expanded from the current 24 million acres to 29 million acres. But federal payments for idling the land for environmental reasons would decrease.
The payment change responds to lawmakers’ concerns that conservation payments in some areas were higher than rental rates new or beginning farmers could afford to pay. The federal government, in essence, outbids farmers and land owners to remove cropland from the market for several years.
The bill would mandate able-bodied adults — ages 18 to 59 — to work a minimum of 20 hours a week or participate in 20 hours of work training or risk losing SNAP benefits.
Excluded from the work requirement would be participants over age 59, the disabled, pregnant women and people responsible for children under age 6.
Other changes to SNAP include:
- Elimination of broad-based categorical eligibility for SNAP for people who receive non-cash assistance from the federal welfare program known as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
- Updating limits on savings, assets and car value to reflect inflation. The higher limits would allow people to have more in savings and assets and a newer and more reliable vehicle for transportation to work.
- Barring states from using a person’s heating or cooling payments received from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program in calculating a standard utility allowance deduction that helps determine the level of monthly benefits. Applicants who are not elderly would have to produce utility bills or other documentation for use in determining the standard utility allowance.
- Creating a national database on SNAP recipients to enable USDA to better track fraud. The national database would centralize data already collected by states.