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Sharp Division, Specter of 2013 Defeat in Farm Bill Debate

House Democrats stood solidly against the GOP-written farm bill in a test vote on Wednesday that gave Agriculture Committee chairman Michael Conaway little room to maneuver on the legislation, which would tighten work requirements for food stamps and loosen subsidy rules for farmers. “There is a cottage industry in this town that is determined to defeat this farm bill,” said the Texas Republican.

With Republicans eager for welfare reform, the House farm bill has become the most partisan in years. “The administration believes that work reforms like those in HR 2 are a critical component of any multiyear farm bill reauthorization,” said the White House early this week. President Trump signed an executive order in April calling for new or tougher work requirements in welfare programs.

Majority-party Republicans prevailed, 229-185, in a procedural vote — whether to debate the bill — that plumbed political sentiment. Only one Democrat, Bobby Rush of Illinois, joined Republicans in the test vote, and only one Republican, Justin Amash of Michigan, voted with Democrats in opposition. The results indicated that Conaway needs near-unanimous GOP support to pass the bill.

“This is a step in the long march,” said Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, a Republican, in appealing for comity. “Let’s avoid what we did five years ago. Let’s keep the process moving forward.”

In 2013, the House defeated a farm bill when conservative Republicans demanded the largest food stamp cuts in a generation. The House eventually passed a “farm only” bill dealing with farm supports and a separate bill to cut food stamps. Negotiators from the House and Senate reassembled the pieces to create the 2014 farm law.

Conaway wants to avoid poison-pill amendments that might be popular at the moment but could ultimately drive away supporters and defeat the bill. On Wednesday night, the GOP leadership decided to allow a vote on only a handful of reform proposals. Chief among them are a proposal by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) to phase out farm subsidies and a proposal by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) to remove many supports for sugar growers. Another McClintock amendment would apply SNAP work requirements to parents when their children reach age 3, rather than age 6, as currently proposed in the bill.

Conaway’s bill would require “work-capable” adults ages 18 to 60 to work at least 20 hours a week or spend equivalent time in job training or workfare to qualify for food stamps. With no additional money available, the bill makes minor changes to crop supports. But it expands the list of relatives eligible for farm subsidies and removes limits on payments for some forms of corporate farming.

“We have a bill that makes meaningful reforms to food stamps,” said Conaway, and it “does provide a safety net” to farmers and ranchers during a period of comparatively low income.

Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern, a defender of food stamps, said, “The bill is so flawed, I hope it goes down to defeat.”

The GOP leadership decided to sideline several reform proposals, among them reinstating current payment limits for farm subsidies, making farmers pay a larger share of crop insurance premiums, and denying crop insurance subsidies to people with more than $500,000 in adjusted gross income or reducing the returns guaranteed to insurance companies. Also dropped from consideration were proposals to ban the purchase of soda or junk food with SNAP benefits.

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