Conaway introduces the House Republican version of farm bill

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-TX, April 12 introduced the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R. 2), which a Conaway statement said is “critical legislation to address the economic challenges facing the nation’s farmers and ranchers, while making historic investments in opportunities for SNAP recipients.

“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. 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.”

According to the score posted by the Congressional Budget Office on April 13, the proposed bill is considered budget neutral but would cut $1.5 billion in spending between fiscal 2019 and 2028 across conservation, rural energy development and crop insurance to offset spending on other initiatives. Some of the funding increases, totaling $458 million, would come from commodity supports, nutrition programs, and a new vaccine bank to combat foot-and-mouth disease in livestock.

The biggest cut would be in conservation programs, with an $800 million slash over 10 years as parts of the Conservation Stewardship Program are mixed into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Getting rid of CSP saves $12.6 billion over a decade, while spending in EQIP would rise to nearly $7.7 billion, cutting overall funding $5 billion.

Some increases

The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program would see funding up by $2.2 billion over a decade and for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program by $1.3 billion.

The commodity title would get an additional $193 million, as more funding is poured into the Price Loss Coverage program and dropped from individual Agricultural Risk Coverage, netting $143 million over 10 years. The bill allows target prices to move upward as the market improves but would cap them at 115 percent.

The bill Conaway introduced is far different than previous House farm bills in that it lacks any support from Democrats. Top among grievances Democrats have is that the bill would create sweeping new work mandates on the nation’s more than 40 million recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often called food stamps.

The proposal would require able-bodied adults aged 18 to 59 to work or participate in job training for 20 hours a week in order to receive food stamp benefits that average about $450 a month for a family of four.

Additionally, cutting SNAP benefits for participants who qualify for heating and cooling assistance, the so-called “heat-and-eat” provision, would each save more than $5 billion over a decade. Stricter work requirements would result in benefits being slashed by $9 billion over a decade, while it would cost $7.6 billion to administer mandatory state education and training programs.

Democrats say the tougher work requirements would drive millions of people off of the program. The measure also would renew the government’s safety net for producers as farm country endures a downturn and as President Donald Trump’s tough talk on tariffs threatens a trade war that could depress prices for farm commodities such as soybeans.

Food stamp requirements

The legislation has traditionally been bipartisan, blending support from urban Democrats supporting nutrition programs with farm state lawmakers supporting crop insurance, farm credit and land conservation, but Democrats are upset over the new SNAP proposals and have broken off talks.

Currently, adults 18 to 59 are required to work part time or agree to accept a job if they’re re-offered one. Stricter rules apply to able-bodied adults without dependents between the ages of 18 and 49, who are subject to a three-month limit of benefits unless they meet a work requirement of 80 hours per month.

Under the new bill, that requirement would be expanded to apply to all work-capable adults, mandating that they either work or participate in work training for 20 hours per week with the exception of seniors, pregnant women, caretakers of children under the age of 6, or people with disabilities.

The new work requirements would take effect in 2021 and increase to 25 hours per week in 2026. Each new SNAP recipient would have one month to comply with the rule. 

The measure also limits circumstances under which families who qualify for other poverty programs can automatically be eligible for SNAP. The bill earmarks $1 billion to expand work-training programs.

Conaway also announced plans to create a national database of SNAP recipients in an effort to prevent people from signing up for the program in multiple states, though he could not say whether such fraud is widespread.

Sign up for HPJ Insights

Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

Top ag Democrat disagrees

House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson said in a statement: “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 (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). 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.

“This bill attempts to change SNAP from a feeding program to a work program. The bill rejects the testimony of 89 witnesses, and instead includes ideological language that will force people off of SNAP to pay for massive state bureaucracies that won’t work and are a waste of money. This legislation is based on false perceptions and ignores reality.

“The bill also fails to make needed improvements to the farm safety net. American farmers are suffering from the largest drop in farm income since the Great Depression, but the farm safety net in this bill is inadequate and won’t help farmers. Our farmers need a safety net that will address their current reality. This farm bill fails to provide the certainty farmers need during uncertain times.”

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-KS, and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, said in a statement: “We continue to be committed to working on a farm bill for all farmers and families. With low commodity prices, worsening conditions in farm country, and unmet needs in communities across the country, we need to get this farm bill right. We’re working together as quickly as possible to produce a bipartisan bill that can pass the Senate and be enacted into law.”

In a news conference with agricultural media, Conaway said he didn’t foresee a repeat of the 2104 farm bill debate, in which members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus tried to sever the bill’s nutrition title from the rest of the bill.

“I’m agnostic toward that,” Conaway said. “If the path of least resistance leads to that I’m willing to look at it. I’m trying to get this to 218 votes without a delay. Everyone needs certainty in this policy, and they need it without a short-term delay or extension or going to permanent law or any other drama.”

“I’m excited to share our vision with the American people and eager for people to see the details of a proposal that offers people real hope and promise. I’m also looking forward to quickly moving this farm bill through the House and working with the Senate to deliver a farm bill to the president’s desk that is on time, as the president has asked us to do.”

Many opinions on proposed House GOP farm bill

The April 12 release by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-TX, of the Republican version of the House 2018 farm bill produced lots of opinions and reaction from interest groups of all shapes and sizes.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall said in a release, “Farm Bureau is pleased to see meaningful adjustments to the current farm bill’s provisions for dairy and the Agriculture Risk Coverage program, as well as new provisions for cotton farmers included in the commodity title. We also appreciate improvements proposed for federal crop insurance. There are additional provisions aimed at improving conservation programs, the specialty crops program and research and rural development programs that will benefit our members across the nation.

“The House Agriculture Committee’s proposed 2018 farm bill shows the committee is aware of a farm economy teetering on a knife’s edge. The legislation released today will assist farmers and ranchers battered by commodity prices that often do not cover the costs of production. This is one step to bring certainty to our farmers when we face challenges from many different directions.”

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said, “Farm income stands at just half of what it was when the last farm bill was written, leaving thousands of farm families struggling financially. Under current conditions and with the programs we have in place, we’re losing farmers. Family farmers and ranchers simply need more resources.

“Yet congressional leadership has severely hamstrung the committee’s ability to address the six-year, 50 percent decline in the farm economy. While they’ve shown little regard for spending and deficits this Congress, they’ve failed to provide adequate resources for food and agriculture at a time of grave financial strain on family farmers and ranchers. This is irresponsible and harmful.

“Family farmers deserve to be a priority. They deserve to have a safety net that addresses current economic conditions. They deserve strong programs that help them improve the long-term sustainability of their farms. And they deserve access to fair and diverse markets. The final version of this farm bill must reflect the growing challenges family farmers face.”

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Kevin Kester said: “We appreciate the committee authorizing the Foot-and-Mouth Disease vaccine bank, which is vitally important to the safety of our industry. However, we were hopeful for full funding levels, which this bill does not provide in years two through five. We’ll continue fighting to secure that funding through all possible avenues.

“We’re also happy to see the Environmental Quality Incentives Program bolstered in this bill, as well as funding for research, foreign market development and market access programs.”

American Sheep Industry President Mike Corn of New Mexico, said, “Key provisions important to America’s sheep producers, including trade promotion, infrastructure and research will expire this fall with the current farm bill. ASI is the national voice of America’s sheep producers, and we strongly support enactment of H.R. 2 this year.”

Grain groups want certainty

American Soybean Association President John Heisdorffer said, “We need to get this farm bill done this year to provide long-term certainty for farmers, given lingering questions on trade and the shaky state of the farm economy.

“We also appreciate the chairman for including authorization for the Foreign Market Development program, as well as funding for FMD and the Market Access Program. ASA will continue to press for the doubled funding we originally requested for these programs, which farmers across the country leverage to expand our overseas markets.”

National Association of Wheat Growers President Jimmie Musick said, “NAWG continues to advocate for a strong crop safety net program which means no cuts to the crop insurance program and maintaining a producer choice between revenue-based (Agriculture Risk Coverage) and price-based (Price Loss Coverage) programs, as well as improvements to both. Further, NAWG continues to advocate for prioritizing working lands conservation programs in the Conservation Title, reauthorization and increased funding for MAP and FMD, as well as a strong research title.”

Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, said, “Congress made important improvements to the dairy safety net earlier this year, but as we have said repeatedly, there is more that must be done in the upcoming farm bill. That need is particularly urgent given the ongoing economic distress facing America’s dairy farmers.

“As the House developed its farm bill, we have worked closely with the leaders of the Agriculture Committee… to make further improvements to the Margin Protection Program and enhance farmers’ ability to use the Livestock Gross Margin program and other risk management tools.

“The bill introduced today includes several changes we have advocated for, particularly in improving coverage levels and providing greater coverage flexibility for dairy producers. It also includes important language on price risk management, which NMPF has worked on closely alongside the International Dairy Foods Association. As the farm bill moves forward, we will continue to work with our allies in Congress on a bipartisan, bicameral basis to further strengthen the dairy safety net for producers of all sizes.”

Tax implications

Greg Fogel, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said, “Under current law, any person or legal entity with an average adjusted gross income exceeding $900,000 (effectively $1.8 million for many couples) is ineligible for commodity or conservation payments. The Conaway provision would allow millionaires to organize their farming business as a partnership or corporation and be exempt from any means testing.”

Anne Weir Schechinger, senior analyst for economics at the Environmental Working Group, said, “The proposed bill completely exempts all ‘pass-through entities’ from this income limit. Pass-through entities include partnerships, joint ventures and limited liability corporations, among other businesses.

“This huge loophole allows anyone with a farm or farm partnership and an annual income above the $900,000 limit to reorganize as a pass-through entity, and then become eligible for subsidies, essentially rendering the income cap useless for farm businesses.

“The 2014 farm bill also established a $125,000 per person-per year payment limit for these farm subsidies. But the proposed bill exempts pass-through entities from the payment limit, so that these entities could essentially receive unlimited subsidies every year.

“The new bill also loosens restrictions for family farms. Previously, the children, siblings and spouse of a farmer could also receive subsidies. But the bill adds cousins, nieces and nephews to the list of family members who can get up to $125,000 a year. And because of lax eligibility rules, these passive family members don’t have to lift a finger on the farm to receive a payment.”

Callie Eideberg, senior policy manager for sustainable agriculture for the Environmental Defense Fund, said, “Overall, the farm bill’s conservation title reflects the long, bipartisan history of farm bills. We urge the committee to proceed with a similar approach for the entire bill and to stay within its jurisdiction. The Endangered Species Act, for example, should not be shoehorned into a farm bill.

“Farm bill conservation programs provide critical protection for land, water and wildlife, plus economic opportunities for producers. The bill takes steps in the right direction by increasing funding for voluntary, incentive-based conservation—a win for farmers and the environment. Such steps include streamlining public-private partnerships and focusing on soil health and water quality.”

The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or [email protected].