Outside Influences

The Farm Bill’s Tough Path

The measure may get enough GOP votes to pass the House this month, but the Senate is another story.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi arrives to speak at a meeting with farmers in Polk City, Iowa, on Monday.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
May 8, 2018, 8 p.m.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway appears determined to bring the farm bill to the House floor next week, and he may get the 215 Republican votes needed to pass it.

But the continuing uncertainty within the Trump administration over trade policy and the Renewable Fuel Standard, as well as the growing criticism of the changes to the food-stamp program, mean that the process of passing this bill is likely to be lengthy—if it passes in this Congress at all.

Conaway is planning meetings this week to sway uncertain Republicans and is hoping to get a whip count before the end of the week. If the result is positive, that would make it possible to bring the bill to the floor next week as he has previously proposed. Only Republicans voted for the bill in committee, and Democrats have said they will not vote for it on the floor.

At the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, Conaway promoted the work requirements for food-stamp beneficiaries, saying, “The path to prosperity is paved with hard work and a good job, period. And that’s what we want to try to get to.”

But the American Public Human Services Association, a bipartisan, nonprofit membership organization representing state and local health and human services agencies, has said, “The Workforce Solutions section of the bill contains by far the most complex, contentious, and speculative elements of this proposed legislation. What states do not want or need to be effective are highly prescriptive instructions and rigid, administratively cumbersome federal reporting requirements that often measure the wrong performance indicators and divert staff time from focusing on getting people employed.”

Conaway dismissed any notion that the states can’t fulfill the bill’s mandate as “horse feathers.”

Conservative social-services advocates at the AEI event said they like the nutrition title even if they have some quibbles with it. The bill would require that both parents with children over the age of 6 prove they are working, which the Heritage Foundation says might mean that some couples would not marry for fear of losing benefits.

The bill’s farm-program provisions are another matter for conservatives. Representatives of the Heritage Foundation, Citizens Against Government Waste, Taxpayers for Common Sense, the R Street Institute, and the National Taxpayers Union all joined a call hosted by the Environmental Working Group on Tuesday to complain that the new bill is worse policy than current law because it lifts payment restrictions. They also said it should reduce crop-insurance subsidies and reform the sugar program.

Conservatives hope for amendments to address those concerns, but Conaway is trying to stop what he fears would be poison pills. And in a sign of the dynamic that may play out on the House floor next week, Caroline Kitchens of the R Street Institute said she is “a little concerned” that President Trump’s renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and tough trade stand with China may lead members to support subsidies.

Trade concerns—as well as the Trump administration’s back-and-forth about the Renewable Fuel Standard that determines ethanol volumetric requirements and demand for corn—may well push Republicans to support a bill they already like because it changes food stamps.

But House floor action would be only the first of many steps to passage. Next there’s the Senate, which hasn’t even marked up the bill in committee and is unlikely to accept the food-stamp changes. Then there’s conference.

Liberal opposition to the House bill remains adamant. This weekend, when Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition picked up a leadership award in Chicago from the James Beard Foundation, he said that he’s worked on eight farm bills but that “this is the worst farm bill that has ever come before the House of Representatives.

“It is really critical that this bill get defeated and put back to the drawing board,” Hoefner said. Besides the changes to food stamps, he said, the bill doesn’t provide enough for renewable energy or local food programs and weakens pesticide, clean-water, and endangered-species laws.

Also this weekend, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi showed up on the farm of Iowa Farmers Union President Aaron Lehman. Pelosi pointed out that the Renewable Fuel Standard was passed when Democrats controlled Congress and that Trump’s trade policies are adding to farmers’ woes when they already face weather and commodity-price problems.

“You don’t need the uncertainty of an ill-advised trade policy,” she said. “Yes, we have to fight for American workers, but we have to do so in a way that doesn’t harm American workers.”

Republicans and some Democrats said Pelosi is so unpopular in rural America that inviting her to Iowa hurt the Democratic cause. But her visit may also be seen as an audacious reminder that if farmers are disgruntled, the Democrats do offer an alternative.

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