Will nutrition reforms once again divide the farm bill coalition?

The Republican Speaker of the House is committed to reforming welfare programs—including food assistance—to fulfill a campaign promise and reduce the federal deficit. But farm-state lawmakers are worried about holding together a fragile urban-rural coalition that has long been critical to passing a new farm bill.

Sound familiar? That was the case in 1995. The House speaker was Newt Gingrich and he was committed to carrying out the GOP’s 1994 campaign agenda, the “Contract with America.” One of the Republicans’ promises was to turn the food stamp program over to the states by converting it into block grants.

Gingrich immediately ran into opposition within his own party—lawmakers from farm districts—including members of the House Agriculture Committee, who were intent on maintaining the longstanding political ties between farm and nutrition programs and their supporters.

A similar scenario played out in 2013, when GOP House leaders couldn’t muster enough votes from their own members to pass a farm bill but also lost Democratic votes because of proposed cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The farm bill failed to pass on the House floor.

Later, the farm and food portions of the bill were passed separately—only to be rejoined in the Senate and ultimately approved as a comprehensive farm bill in 2014.

Now, history appears to be repeating itself once again in 2018—just as debate over a new farm bill begins in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Rep. Collin Peterson, the House Agriculture Committee’s ranking minority member who hails from Minnesota, said the proposed bill “hit an impasse” at last week’s briefing for committee Democrats when they learned about the details of the bill’s nutrition title.

Peterson “has seen the nutrition title and can’t support it,” said Liz Friedlander, a spokeswoman for committee Democrats. She said, however, that there were ongoing discussions with the Republican side.

“My side is in revolt,” said Peterson during an interview with Mike Adams of American Ag Network. “There will not be one single vote in committee for this bill if what they have currently in the bill is in there.”

Peterson said Republicans “want to take 8 million people off the rolls,” about 20 percent of SNAP participation and give the savings “to the states to create a job training bureaucracy.”

Under current law, able-bodied adults without dependents ages 18 to 49 generally must work at least 20 hours a week to receive SNAP benefits. They can be out of work no more than three months out of every three years unless their state or area has a waiver for USDA because of high unemployment or job scarcity.

A source knowledgeable about the committee’s draft bill said the legislation would tighten the waiver rules and increase the number of able-bodied adults subject to the work requirement to include adults with children above the age of 12. Peterson said the age limit would be raised to 65, under the draft bill. The source said that was still subject to negotiation. The savings from tightening the work requirements would be used to expand state employment and training programs.

For his part, Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-TX, insisted that “not one person would be forced off SNAP due to the work or training requirements we have been discussing. Not one. Our approach is not even remotely like the approach taken in 2013 that caused the farm bill to fail.

“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. 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.”

Peterson compared the language in the bill to an amendment adopted on the House floor in June 2013 that caused Democrats to revolt against the farm bill and causing it to fail. That amendment also would have tightened work requirements and allowed states to keep some of the savings. Democrats said that gave states an incentive to kick people off the SNAP.

Peterson said he didn’t know how Conaway could go ahead with having the committee debate the bill March 20, if he wants Democratic support.

However, Conaway said he planned to release the draft bill next week in order to have the committee markup the week after next, setting up House floor action the week after the Easter recess. He insists that he still wanted the bill to have bipartisan support.

“I have always intended and continue to hope that this farm bill will be a bipartisan bill. There is no reason that it should not be and every reason it should. Our farmers and ranchers are hurting.”

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He is likely to need some Democratic support on the House floor to overcome losses from GOP conservatives who also object to the spending on farm programs or believe that the changes to SNAP don’t go far enough.

Meanwhile, some farm organizations are reminding their members about what Sen. Robert Dole once acknowledged about the wisdom of keeping farm and food programs together.

“It’s worked,” former Sen. Robert Dole, R-KS, says of the farm-nutrition coalition that he helped forge for the first time in the 1973 farm bill. “People have benefited from the food program, people who needed it.…and farmers, and not all farmers are rich, have benefited from the farm programs.”

For more on the “lessons learned” during previous farm bills, go to the free Agri-Pulse eBook: “The Seven Things You Should Know Before You Write the Next Farm Bill.”

Editor’s note: Agri-Pulse Editor Sara Wyant can be reached at www.agri-pulse.com. Agri-Pulse Senior Editor Philip Brasher contributed to this column.