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House to Call Farm Bill Showdown With Senate

With the support of the Trump administration, the Republican-controlled House wrote welfare reform into the farm bill. Now, GOP leaders say they will call a vote as early as Tuesday in the House for a face-to-face confrontation with the Senate over broader and more rigorous work requirements affecting an estimated 7 million food stamp recipients.

SNAP has been the major dispute between the chambers for months, although there are significant disagreements over stewardship and crop-subsidy limits. The House would eliminate a green-payment program for working lands and loosen the rules for collecting subsidies. The Senate would keep the Conservation Stewardship Program and limit subsidies to farmers, their spouses, and one “manager” per farm.

Farm bill disagreements are starkest on SNAP. On their second attempt, House Republicans passed a farm bill that would require “work-capable” adults ages 18 to 59 to work at least 20 hours a week or spend equivalent time in job training or workfare. States would be given $1 billion a year for training programs for an expected 3 million people — $30 a month per person — who don’t meet the 20-hour rule. The bipartisan Senate bill leaves in place the current SNAP requirement for recipients to register for work and to accept a suitable job if offered.

“Obviously, we have differences,” said Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts. “I’m trying to get a farm bill done.”

In the language of parliamentary procedure, the House will vote on a motion to go to conference, the most frequent method of reconciling divergent bills. With that vote out of the way, House and Senate leaders will be free to appoint their conferees, the small group of negotiators who will write a final version of the bill. Typically, the senior Republicans and Democrats on the Agriculture Committees are in charge of negotiations. Roberts will chair the conference.

Although the 2018 farm law does not expire until September 30, lawmakers may already feel time is slipping away. The House will be in session for only five weeks before the end of September. In the estimation of one farm lobbyist, the House and Senate negotiators are unlikely to convene a public session before September, considering the House will recess for a month in August. Conference committees are obliged to conduct one public meeting.

Most of the negotiations for the final draft of the 2014 law were conducted in private among the four leaders — Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, Republican Senator Thad Cochran, House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, and Democratic Representative Collin Peterson. Stabenow tenaciously, and successfully, opposed food-stamp cuts that would reduce enrollment. Her approach showed the powerful effect that a determined conferee can have on legislation.

House Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway, who has pursued change in SNAP rules for years, has said he expects the 2018 farm bill will include tougher work requirements. Roberts and Stabenow have said divisive legislation stands little chance of passage in the Senate. Republicans control the 100-member Senate by a two-vote margin. The GOP has a 236-193 advantage over Democrats in the House with six vacant seats.

Collin Peterson, the Democratic leader on the House Agriculture Committee, has said he will side with the Senate on SNAP. Democrats say Conaway blindsided them with his work-rule package, changes that were not discussed during a two-year series of hearings on SNAP.

“The partisan House version … would move America backward by taking food assistance away from substantial numbers of people in need and making SNAP less effective at reducing food insecurity and supporting low-income families,” said Robert Greenstein of the think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “When House and Senate members negotiate a final farm bill, they should hew to the Senate approach — working across party lines to produce a bill that improves rather than weakens America’s most effective antihunger program.”

With the economy expanding and the unemployment rate low, “the timing is ideal for expanding work requirements among nondisabled working-age adults in social welfare programs,” said the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors. In a report, the council said, “[T]he share of working-age Americans participating in the labor force has fallen behind the share in peer countries over the last several years.” President Trump signed an executive order in April calling for new or stronger work requirements for social safety net programs. Trump applauded on social media the passage of the House farm bill. “Farm Bill just passed in the House. So happy to see work requirements included. Big win for the farmers!” tweeted the president.

To read the executive summary of the White House report or for a link to the full report, click here.

To read a Congressional Research Service report on conference committees, click here.

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