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In House, ‘A Lot of Undecideds’ on Farm Bill

While ready to move on the farm bill, House Republican leaders are giving Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway time to persuade “a lot of undecideds” to vote for tougher work requirements for SNAP recipients and looser subsidy rules for farmers. A sizable number of Republican lawmakers say Conaway wasn’t tough enough on either group and want to tighten the access to federal support.

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy listed the farm bill for consideration this week but placed it last of three bills for debate. The House Rules Committee, the gatekeeper for floor action, says it will spend two days — Tuesday and Wednesday — deciding terms of debate for the bill, which could mean no discussion on the floor before Thursday.

“We’ve got a lot of undecideds,” said Conaway at the end of last week, acknowledging he lacked a majority for the bill after a head count by the leadership. “We believe we’ll get there … I believe we’ll be there next week and we’ll have it on the floor.”

Democrats are solidly against the bill, so the GOP must rely on its members to back the bill en bloc. If two dozen Republicans object or defect, the bill could fail, an embarrassment to GOP leaders such as Speaker Paul Ryan, a supporter of welfare reform, and to President Trump, a proponent of stronger work requirements for welfare.

Lawmakers proposed a dozen or more amendments to put tougher limits on crop insurance and farm subsidy spending. Representative Mark Meadows, chairman of the small-government House Freedom Caucus, proposed a $125,000-per-person limit on crop subsidies with eligibility limited to active farmers, their spouses, and a farm manager who performed at least 520 hours, or one fourth, of annual farm-management work. The House and Senate backed a similar standard for the 2014 farm law, but it was eliminated by the small group of negotiators who wrote the final version. The Freedom Caucus has two or three dozen members

Other Republican-backed amendments would deny payments to the wealthiest operators, remove language making cousins, nieces, and nephews eligible for subsidies, and nix payment limits on some types of corporate farms.

Republicans also proposed amendments to ban purchases of soda or junk food with SNAP benefits, to require “work capable” adults to work 30 hours a week to qualify for SNAP rather than Conaway’s proposed 20 hours a week, and to mandate parents meet the work requirement once their children reach age 3 instead of the proposed age 6.

The Rules Committee is expected to decide which amendments will be allowed for debate. The committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss terms for so-called general debate, which usually lasts one hour and during which no amendments are considered. On Wednesday, the panel will consider terms of debate for amendments. The bifurcated consideration of debate on the farm bill is unusual. Almost invariably, the committee meets once on a bill and writes one set of instructions for consideration of legislation. The House must approve the so-called rule before it can consider a bill.

Conaway has suggested that no one should be allowed to offer an amendment without first promising to vote for the farm bill. Democrat Jim McGovern, a member of the Agriculture and Rules committees, has called that idea a loyalty oath that is contrary to House tradition of free debate.

The farm bill written by Conaway would require up to 9 million people to work at least 20 hours a week or spend an equivalent amount of time in job training or workfare in order to receive food stamps. Participants would have to report their work hours each month. States would receive $1 billion a year to pay for job training for everyone — an estimated 3 million people — who did not work enough hours. Critics say there will be too little money to run high-quality training programs and the paperwork requirements will disqualify SNAP participants.

To read the text of the farm bill, the Agriculture Committee report on it, or the Rules Committee list of proposed amendments, click here.

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