Outside Influences

Why Prospects for a Farm Bill Are Dimming

Democrats have pulled out of negotiations because of GOP plans for tougher food-stamp work requirements, while Republicans suspect Democrats are stalling until after the elections.

AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty
March 20, 2018, 8 p.m.

Prospects for writing a new farm bill before the current one expires in September are now very dim, and the breakdown between Republicans and Democrats over food stamps is only one of the reasons.

Last week, all 19 Democratic members of the House Agriculture Committee wrote ranking member Collin Peterson that they had become “concerned about the nutrition policies being pushed by the majority” and asked him to “abstain from further negotiations until the chairman [Rep. Mike Conaway] agrees to share the legislative text and its detailed impact with members of the committee.”

The committee Democrats wrote that letter after Peterson on March 12 told farm broadcaster Mike Adams that the Republicans “want to take 8 million people off the rolls, and they want to take the money saved and give it to the states to create a job-training bureaucracy.”

Conaway is focused on stiffening work requirements for beneficiaries of what is officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Peterson said that the GOP proposal would raise the age until which beneficiaries would be expected to work to 65. That would mean police, the military, and others who take retirement at 50 or 55 because their jobs allow it, but don’t get big pensions, would not be able to get benefits unless they go back to work, Peterson said.

Peterson immediately agreed to his members’ request. Conaway apparently agreed to allow Peterson to share some information about the nutrition title on Tuesday, but Peterson said afterward that his members remained “unanimous in their opposition to the extreme partisan policies” of the Republicans. The breakdown meant that Conaway could not deliver on his promise to hold a markup in the first quarter of the year.

People close to Conaway say that Peterson has exaggerated the impact of the work requirements on SNAP beneficiaries. Conaway wants to improve the lives of SNAP participants by getting them jobs or training, and that should be possible in a growing economy with low unemployment, they say.

Conflicts over nutrition programs come up in every farm-bill debate, and this one could certainly be resolved. Although Conaway may insist on making his point, he is in a weak position in the long run. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts has said he isn’t planning on any major changes to nutrition programs because he needs Democratic votes to get the bill through the Senate.

But the real reason moving the farm bill may be difficult is that farmers are distracted by other issues.

In normal times, with commodity prices and farm incomes low, farmers would be flying into Washington demanding aid. They are indeed flying into town—but to focus on the battle between the Midwestern and oil-state senators over the Renewable Fuel Standard, and the potential retaliation from President Trump’s rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the tariffs he plans to impose Friday on imports of steel and aluminum. Their messages: Don’t mess with the RFS, and free trade works fine for agriculture.

Pressure to write a new bill has diminished because dairy and cotton farmers got fixes in the disaster bill that became law in February. Farmers are also leery about a new bill because Trump’s budget has proposed cutting crop insurance and other programs.

While farm leaders give lip service to the idea that a new five-year farm bill would give them and their bankers certainty, they privately acknowledge that an extension with no budget cuts might be better.

Conaway has accused Democrats of playing politics and wanting to delay the farm bill until after the election.

“I understand that this is an even-numbered year, and that some in the Democratic leadership may not want to allow Congress to get its work done in order to score points in the fall and they will look for any excuse,” he said. “That’s certainly their prerogative. But anyone who cares about the farmer and the rancher and the state of the agriculture economy does not have that kind of luxury.”

It’s time to acknowledge that the elections of Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama and Conor Lamb as a likely representative from Pennsylvania have changed the dynamics of the 2018 political debate. Jones and Lamb, elected from conservative places, are just the kind of Democrats who can be helpful to both farmers and antihunger advocates—and who could work with Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow if she were to chair the committee and Peterson if he were chairman in the House.

Democrats are on a warpath to win more seats. As the midterm elections approach, do Republicans really want to get into a debate about making it harder for low-income people to get food?

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