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Status-Quo Farm Bill Nears Victory With Modifications Already in the Air

After months as an ideological flashpoint, a toned-down farm bill is on track for bipartisan passage in Congress this week, short of a proposal for stricter SNAP work requirements. Enactment won’t end debate over the status-quo legislation. “It can’t come soon enough, and when it comes, it will not be enough,” said President Roger Johnson of the National Farmers Union.

The $87-billion-a-year bill would tweak U.S. farm subsidies, expand the land-idling Conservation Reserve by 3 million acres and make nieces, nephews, and first cousins eligible to collect up to $125,000 a year in crop supports, according to lawmakers and lobbyists. It also would legalize industrial hemp as a crop and install USDA as its regulator.

Text of the compromise bill is expected to be released on Tuesday, following the scheduled formal approval today by the 56 House and Senate “conferees” in charge of the bill. The parliamentary heavy lifting was done by the “four corners,” the Republican chairmen and senior Democrats on the Senate and House Agriculture Committees.

“There is going to have to be another initiative from Congress to deal with” low farm income and the impact of trade war with China, said NFU’s Johnson during an “Open Mic” interview. “They’re going to have to shore the safety net up more than it is in the farm bill.”

The incoming chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Democrat Collin Peterson of Minnesota, has a similar view. He told home-state reporters last week that he advised House Democratic leaders that additional aid may be needed.

“When that will happen, whether it’ll be next year or the year after, I don’t know. How much it’ll be, I don’t know,” said Peterson.

House Republicans, denied the chance of a broad-scale welfare reform bill this year, tried a narrower overhaul of SNAP in the farm bill — a requirement for “work capable” adults aged 18-59 and with children 6 or older to work at least 20 hours a week or spend equivalent time in job training or workfare to qualify for food stamps. The Senate rejected that approach before passing its bipartisan bill, 86-11. The House Republican proposal was dropped during negotiations after the midterm elections. One if its leading proponents, Speaker Paul Ryan, will retire at the end of this month.

Peterson says he’s confident many House Democrats will vote for the compromise bill. Last summer, Democrats uniformly voted against the work requirements proposed by the GOP. Food stamp recipients are required at present to register for work and to accept a suitable job if offered. Children, the elderly, and disabled are exempt. So-called able-bodied adults without dependents aged 18-49 are limited to 90 days of food stamps in a three-year period unless there is a state waiver. The administration is considering restrictions on the waivers.

When the “four corners” announced an agreement in principle on the farm bill, the American Farm Bureau Federation said it was “good news for farmers amid a prolonged downturn in the agricultural economy. Continued access to risk-management tools, assistance in foreign market development, and conservation and environmental stewardship programs within the legislation are especially important for farmers and ranchers.

Farm groups expected a status-quo bill when work began on the farm bill because there was no additional funding to pay for major changes in the farm program. They called for revisions to even out county-to-county disparities in crop subsidy payment rates and more freedom to switch between the two major support programs. The traditionally styled Price Loss Coverage subsidy is expected to be popular during the current stretch of low commodity prices.

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