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House Republicans Will Pass Farm Bill on Their Own, Says Conaway

With Democrats solidly in opposition, House Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway says he will canvass his Republican colleagues to make sure they will pass, as early as next week, a farm bill that toughens work requirements on SNAP recipients and loosens crop subsidy limits for farmers. Passage could require a repeat on the House floor of the party-line approval in committee on April 18 of the most partisan farm bill in years.

Republicans hold a 235-193 margin over Democrats but need a simple majority of 215 votes at present — because seven seats are vacant — to pass legislation, so they cannot afford more than a handful of defections. A band of conservative groups, including Heritage Action and Club for Growth, say Conaway’s bill is an unacceptable mix of cronyism, waste, and dependence-inducing farm subsidies. Two members of the House Freedom Caucus, which has three dozen members, plan to offer an amendment to cut federal spending on crop insurance by one third.

The farm bill would spend $87 billion a year, three fourths of it on SNAP.

“We’re doing the right stuff on SNAP,” said Conaway during an AgriTalk interview at the end of last week. House Republicans want to see “meaningful welfare-to-work” reforms, he said. Asked about his plans for this week, the chairman said, “We’ll spend the time running the traps with my Republican colleagues to make sure we have the votes necessary…I think I can get this done with just Republicans so that’s the direction we’ll go.” Once assured of solid support for the bill, GOP House leaders could schedule a vote on the farm bill during the week of May 14.

Conaway drafted the bill on his own amid objections by committee Democrats to his unbending advocacy of requiring “work capable” SNAP recipients to work at least 20 hours a week or spend an equivalent amount of time in job training or workfare. States would be given $1 billion a year to pay for job training for everyone, an estimated 3 million people a year, who don’t meet the 20-hour rule. The bill also tightens eligibility rules. Democrats say 1.6 million people would leave SNAP because of the changes, 1 million because of the work requirements and the monthly paperwork that will be needed to prove compliance.

“Under this work proposal, only a work-capable individual who chooses not to participate in a guaranteed E&T (employment and training) slot — who chooses not to take advantage of free training and education opportunities — will lose eligibility for SNAP,” said Conaway and Harry Alford, cofounder of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, in an essay. Conaway often says able-bodied people ought to be required to work or participate in the training program proposed in the farm bill in order to improve their lives.

“It’s expensive, risky, and will do damage to low-income households,” said Stacy Dean of the think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. At present, most states run small E&T programs, so it would be a challenge to provide high-quality training to a sharply larger number of people within two years, the deadline set by the farm bill, said Dean.

The jobless rate is the lowest since 2000, but wage growth has been slow. For many low-income workers, the challenge is to stitch together enough hours of work at jobs with uncertain schedules, said Dean. The Center on Budget says most able-bodied adults are workers. “Some 59% of households with such individuals (nonelderly adults who do not receive disability benefits) work in a typical month while receiving SNAP.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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