House Republicans are hoping to farm out some of their farm-bill whipping duties to President Trump in order to overcome intraparty feuds over food stamps and crop subsidies, but doubts remain about how effective the president will be in selling agriculture policy.
Sen. Pat Roberts and Rep. Mike Conaway, the chairmen of the Senate and House agriculture committees, met with Trump last week. Conaway told House leadership that the president sounded supportive of the bill, particularly its mandate of work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients.
Rep. Frank Lucas, the former chairman of the Agriculture Committee, said the president’s prodding could be particularly effective in wrangling conservative members, who have said they want the bill to go farther in cutting the food-stamp program.
“Clearly the president has strong influence on a number of my colleagues on the House floor. Probably the more conservative my colleagues are, the more influence the president has,” Lucas said. “The question becomes: Do my fellow Republicans actually want to reform mandatory spending? And if so, then by 218 votes, they’ll have to support it.”
Although news articles surfaced last week claiming that the president would threaten to veto the bill if it did not further cut SNAP, the president left the impression with the Agriculture chairmen that he will full-throatedly endorse the bill this week, according to a House leadership aide, who requested anonymity to discuss internal party dynamics.
Some of Trump’s preferred policies have been met with anxiety from the agricultural sector, including his push to limit immigrant work visas and threatening a trade war with China. So much so, in fact, that Conaway has been using that anxiety as a selling point for the bill, holding that farmers need the farm subsidies as a safety net in case a trade war erupts.
Still, the House aide acknowledged that there is a similar level of anxiety among House Republicans in relying on that same president to push the measure over the finish line, especially when he can be easily distracted by other hot-button issues.
“What level of care the president has with this issue is always a question,” the aide said. “But he seems to be supportive of this. He likes the idea of the SNAP reforms. That really appeals to him. He likes the idea of people having to work to receive benefits.”
As it turns out, so does the influential House Freedom Caucus. The group’s chairman, Mark Meadows, said during an interview on C-SPAN’s Newsmakers, however, that he wants to see more changes to the program. As written, the bill would fund an Agriculture Department job-training program with savings anticipated due to people leaving the food-stamp program.
“I have not found a jobs program in the federal government that ever works,” Meadows said. “We have got a number of federal programs that are dismal failures. To give more money to a program that has not worked in the past is just creating a foolish mistake.”
Meadows also said he has concerns over dairy policy and has offered an amendment to limit commodity-program payments only to active farmers and one farm manager per payment. Several other Freedom Caucus members have amendments, but it is unclear whether the full weight of the group will fall behind any one. They will meet Tuesday evening to discuss the bill, but Meadows said it is not likely the group will vote as a bloc on the bill.
Part of the reason for that is the parochial nature of the policies. Sugar subsidies, for instance, are splitting not just the Freedom Caucus, but the Republican Conference as a whole. Rep. Virginia Foxx has offered an amendment to allow the Agriculture secretary to allow more sugar imports and scale back federal subsidies to the sugar industry, much to the consternation of Florida Republicans, whose state sugarcane industry is threatened by cheaper and more plentiful sugar from countries such as Brazil, China, and India.
On this issue, moderate Republicans like Rep. Tom Rooney are united in opposition to the amendment with conservatives like Rep. Ted Yoho, who said he generally opposes federal subsidy programs but supports this one because it helps his state economy.
“It is, I suppose, a little hypocritical. But I’m there to protect the American farmer,” Yoho said. “It’s a policy that’s been around for so long that markets have evolved, lifestyles have evolved around it. Is it right to snatch that out from underneath them?”
Republicans will have to pass the bill with no help from Democrats, who are unanimously against the SNAP changes proposed by the GOP, and also opposed to other provisions in the bill.
“I don’t agree with all the conservation stuff they’ve done … rural development. There’s more problems than just SNAP,” House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson said.
Another sticking point for Democrats is a suite of environmental provisions, particularly those related to pesticides. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Working Group, and other left-leaning advocates are pressuring opposition to the bill, which they say will threaten drinking water and endangered species.
The legislation would clarify that private groups can’t sue the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to consult with federal wildlife agencies about the potential effects of pesticides on endangered species. Pesticides, which are products engineered to kill living things like invasive plants, have a long history of killing off and threatening endangered populations, such as bald eagles.
Agriculture Committee Republicans also tossed in language to exempt pesticide users, such as farmers, from having to obtain permits to discharge pesticides into waterways, which provide drinking water to people across the country.
But the bill is sparking a bit of discord within the environmental community. The Environmental Defense Fund is applauding increased funding in the legislation for conservation programs.