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The Big Two U.S. Ag Groups Differ on House Farm Bill, SNAP Overhaul

The 200,000-member National Farmers Union said it opposes the Republican-written farm bill awaiting a vote in the House, saying it shortchanges farmers and “makes unnecessary cuts to programs that feed hungry Americans.” Meanwhile, an official for the much-larger American Farm Bureau Federation said the partisan split over the bill was not an insurmountable barrier to passing a new farm and public nutrition law this year. The Farm Bureau, while urging speedy passage of the farm bill, has been silent on proposed work requirements for SNAP.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway told farm broadcasters that House Republicans will discuss the bill during a private meeting on Friday before they leave Washington for a 10-day recess. The farm bill could be called for debate as early as May 7, but some congressional sources say the week of May 15 is more likely. Republican leaders won’t schedule a vote until they are certain the bill will pass. Hard-line conservatives may press for further cuts to USDA programs in exchange for their votes.

House Democrats are likely to oppose the farm bill en bloc, as they did in 2013, when conservatives demanded the largest cuts in food stamps in a generation. Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson, the committee’s ranking Democrat, told the National Association of Farm Broadcasters, who were meeting in Washington, that for the House debate, he recommends a repeat of the tactic used in committee: Offer no amendments. The bill has too many flaws to be repaired, he said. All Republicans on the Agriculture Committee voted for the bill sponsored by Conaway, and all Democrats voted against it.

The NFU board approved a resolution of opposition to the House farm bill. It called for “significant improvements,” including higher trigger prices for crop subsidies, stronger controls on payments to large operators, retention of a working-lands conservation program, and maintaining “funding for consumer benefits under nutrition programs.” More funding is needed to help farmers through a period of low farm income, said the resolution, which listed the bill’s shortcomings. “Furthermore, it makes unnecessary cuts to programs that feed hungry Americans.”

By comparison, the Farm Bureau has pointed to improvements in dairy, cotton, and grain support programs in the House bill, and said committee approval “takes us one step closer to bringing certainty to families who face the toughest farm economy in more than a decade.” The farm group does not have a position on the SNAP portion of the bill, said a spokesman.

In a Farm Bureau podcast, the group’s top lobbyist, Dale Moore, said the partisan divide over the farm bill was predictable in light of Conaway’s proposals on SNAP. They would require up to 9 million “work-capable” adults to work at least 20 hours a week to qualify for SNAP benefits or to spend an equivalent amount of time in job training or workfare. The states would get $1 billion a year to pay for the training programs. Democrats say 1.6 million people would disappear from SNAP because of the changes – 1 million because of the work requirements and the monthly bookkeeping headaches of proving compliance, and the rest because of stricter eligibility rules.

Moore cited the legislative ferment over the 1996 Freedom to Farm law and the 1994 USDA organization as examples that “regardless of who’s in the majority, you see a fairly straight party-line vote with legislation coming out of committee.”

Most of the time, farm bills excite regional rather than partisan differences. Agriculture Committee members often say proudly that their panel is freer of partisan overtones than any other congressional committee.

“It’s highly unusual for the Ag Committee” to split along party lines, said Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. The 1996 Farm Bill and this year’s House bill are “the only two times that I recall [votes] on a strictly partisan basis, and both included work requirements.” Food stamp revisions were eventually enacted as part of the 1996 welfare reform law. They included the requirement, still in effect, that able-bodied adults without dependents work at least 20 hours a week or be in a workfare program in order to receive food stamps.

In the podcast, Moore said that “we still have high expectations” for the farm bill and that Congress will “get it all finalized if not right before the current farm bill expires, shortly thereafter.” The 2014 farm law nominally expires on September 30, but various provisions will be active for months afterward, and some elements, such as food stamps and crop insurance, will continue to operate regardless.

Winter wheat growers sow their crop in the fall, so there is pressure to complete the farm bill in time for them to know what to expect in government supports. Because this is an election year, there is limited time for action on major legislation. The campaign season traditionally begins around Labor Day. Congress usually takes August for summer vacation. When the House reconvenes on May 7, it will have 10 weeks of work on its calendar before the August break.

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