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McConnell Aims for Final Farm Bill Vote ‘Shortly After’ Labor Day

Congress could send the final version of the 2018 farm bill to President Trump for enactment in early September, a little over a month from now, if negotiators live up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s outline. Work requirements for SNAP recipients will be the crucial issue; the House and Senate are polar opposites on the question.

The Republican-controlled House, backed by the White House, voted to require an estimated 7 million “work capable” adults aged 18-59 to work at least 20 hours a week or spend equivalent time in job training or workfare. Senators rejected a similar plan by a 2-to-1 margin. Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts frequently remarks how the Senate bill passed, 86-11, with broad support while the House bill squeaked through a starkly partisan roll call by two votes—a suggestion that the Senate holds the upper hand in the so-called conference committee that will reconcile the bills.

“We hope to be able to present that conference report on the farm bill to both bodies (the House and Senate) shortly after the Labor Day weekend,” said McConnell. “The leaders of the House Agriculture Committee are committed to stay in touch even though they are taking a six-week break.”

On a voice vote on Thursday night, the Senate took the formal step of calling for farm bill negotiations and agreeing to appoint a nine-member team composed of five Republican and four Democratic senators. The senators are likely to be named today and probably will be the senior members of the Agriculture Committee. The House named 47 negotiators from nine committees in late July.

“Chairman Roberts is working as expeditiously as possible to get the farm bill done,” said a Roberts press aide when asked if the compromise bill would be ready by Labor Day. Roberts will chair the House-Senate negotiations.

The “big four” of farm bill negotiators, the Republican chairmen and senior Democrats of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees, met last Thursday in a show of unity and determination. “We look forward to working together to get a farm bill finished as quickly as possible, and we’re committed to finding solutions to resolve the differences,” they said in a statement issued after the meeting.

Besides SNAP, the House and Senate disgree over land stewardship and farm subsidy limits. The House would eliminate the green-payment Conservation Stewardship Program. The Senate would preserve it. The House would make cousins, nieces, and nephews of farmers eligible for farm subsidies and remove limits on payments to some types of corporations. The Senate would tighten farm subsidy rules by allowing only farmers, their spouses, and one manager per farm to collect the payments.

“One farm manager ought to be enough for any farm,” said Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, author of the payment limit language. “The farm bill is hard to pass anyway. My reforms make it easier…more defensible.”

Congress often completes work on farm bills months later than planned. The 2014 farm bill, which expires on September 30, began as the 2012 farm bill. Agricultural leaders in Congress put a premium on finishing work on the 2018 farm bill on time as a way to reduce anxiety over low commodity prices and the tit-for-tat tariff war.

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