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With the current farm bill expired and no substitute likely in the near future, the White House is making a controversial Republican proposal to change the bill’s nutrition program a bigger part of the 2018 congressional election.
But the leader of an anti-hunger organization says the nation is better off with no farm bill at all than it would be with passage of the version supported by President Donald Trump.
The Republican strategy, according to news reports, is to paint Democrats as obstructionists to a final farm bill. Trump is enlisting the help of Vice President Mike Pence to carry the message, and the president is expected to add the issue to his own stump speeches, Politico reports.
In campaign stops for Republican candidates, Pence has said Congress needs to pass a farm bill that toughens the work requirements for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“We’re gonna stand firm and get a farm bill that includes work requirements for people—able-bodied Americans—on food stamps so we get people back into the workforce and back enjoying the dignity of work,” Pence said in a campaign stop in Kansas, as reported by The Atlantic.
The farm bill expired September 30, with the replacement package stuck between different House and Senate versions of the important legislation. Trump and some Republican leaders have claimed that Democrats, who have unanimously voted against SNAP work requirements in both chambers, are responsible for the impasse.
Besides Vice President Pence, another key Republican who is helping get the GOP viewpoint out about the farm bill is Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI). Ryan, who is retiring at the end of his current term, sees SNAP cuts as a critical piece of his long-term mission of welfare reform and decreased spending on domestic anti-poverty programs.
“We see this farm bill as pivotal for building a sturdier ladder of opportunity in America,” Ryan stated after the House and Senate versions of the bill passed this summer. “With all this momentum in our economy, there could not be a better time to help more people move from welfare to work. This is a chance to close the skills gap, better equip our workforce, and support much-needed development in rural communities.”
Other Republicans have tried to broaden the critique of Democrats beyond SNAP. Representative Kristi Noem (R-SD), retiring from the House to run for South Dakota governor, has blamed Senate Agriculture Committee Minority Leader Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) for the farm bill delay.
“The hang-up before we left D.C. was that Senate Democrats wanted to pull money out of commodity programs,” Noem said in an interview to The Daily Republic (Mitchell, SD). “Debbie Stabenow wanted to put money into urban farming and farmers markets and we just weren’t willing to do that. A lot of our South Dakota farmers are struggling and we wanted to make sure a lot of those safety nets stayed in place, and to have those funds in commodity programs where we need them.”
Critics of the Republican strategy say that the majority party is trying to dismantle the traditional farm bill coalition of urban legislators supporting nutrition programs supporting low-income residents while rural legislators garner spending for agriculture subsidies and crop insurance. Democrats broadly prefer the bipartisan Senate draft, as do most anti-hunger and rural development groups.
The House and Senate versions of the bill contain significant differences in SNAP and other nutrition programs, as well as significant differences between conservation, rural development and local food programs.
Last week, a coalition of The Environmental Working Group, Food Policy Action, Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), Natural Resources Defense Council and Union of Concerned Scientists held an event in Washington, D.C., urging passage of the bipartisan Senate bill.
“The Senate bill is a hard-fought compromise,” said Ferd Hoefner of NSAC. “They made it across the finish line in historic numbers. … What could be clearer that this is the path forward and the only path forward?”
Monica Mills, executive director of the Food Policy Action, said she thinks the nation would be better off without a new farm bill than to have the House version of the bill approved. She said the conditions in the House version “are things none of us at this table are willing to accept. If it goes in that direction, no farm bill is better than a bad farm bill,” she said.
The anti-hunger research and advocacy group FRAC said that a bipartisan group of senators rejected SNAP changes during the Senate floor debate. “We applaud the 68 Senators who voted to table a harmful amendment to the bill that would have worsened hunger by imposing harsher work rules on struggling people and requiring food retailers to check photo identification for SNAP EBT card customers, among other provisions,” FRAC stated.
The House version of the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R. 2) passed June 21 along partisan lines after it was initially defeated in May. The House vote was extremely close, narrowly passing the second round in a 213-211 vote. All Democrats opposed the House bill, primarily because of cuts and work requirements for participants in nutrition programs.
The Senate, a week later, passed their version of the replacement bill with a strong bipartisan 85-11 vote. The Senate bill maintains the structure of current farm bill for the most part, while also providing mandatory funding for many programs canceled by the House bill.
The farm bill represents more than $100 billion per year in spending and economic support for rural communities. The vast majority of farm bill funding is spent on nutrition, support for farmers, rural economic development, food inspections, research and conservation programs.
At this point in the process, Congress is in recess in the run-up to the mid-term elections. It’s not clear what the conference committee negotiators will do during the post-election session. They could recommend compromise legislation, extend the previous bill or allow the existing expiration to continue.