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What Happens if Congress Misses Farm Bill Deadline?

Barring a dramatic breakthrough, farm-state lawmakers will miss their target of enacting the 2018 farm bill in the next six days, according to two of the Senate and House negotiators charged with finding a compromise. SNAP, specifically House Republicans’ demands for stricter work requirements for food-stamp recipients, is the major obstacle for the conferees, but there are differences across all sections of the $87-billion-a-year legislation.

There would be little immediate impact if the 2014 farm law expires, as scheduled, on Sunday without a successor in place. Lawmakers have passed short-term extensions, sometimes repeatedly, in the past while completing negotiations, or simply allowed a lapse of a few days. At some point, the bogeyman of farm bills will be invoked — reversion to the “permanent” 1949 Agricultural Act, which would boost farm subsidy rates to unaffordable rates, reintroduce planting controls for some crops, and eliminate support for soybeans.

During interviews with broadcasters, Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson, the senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, and Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, one of the Senate conferees, said it was unlikely that Congress would pass the farm bill by Sunday. Peterson, one of the “big four” negotiators, said on “Adams on Agriculture” that a compromise bill might be passed in October. Ernst told Radio Iowa, “We could be looking at a one-year extension.”

Farm-bill negotiators have been racing the calendar since they formally began work on September 5, notwithstanding previous weeks of work behind the scenes by Senate Agriculture chairman Pat Roberts, House Agriculture chairman Michael Conaway, Peterson, and Senator Debbie Stabenow, the senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Roberts said at midmonth that “September 30 is the preferred date” for the farm bill to become law, “but that’s not going to be the end of the world if that doesn’t happen.”

“We’re really down to waivers now,” said Peterson when asked about disagreements over revisions in SNAP. “The big problem that we’ve had [is] the waivers.” A change in administration of waivers has been broached as a way to resolve the sharply different views of the House and Senate on work requirements.

Unless they are elderly, disabled, or children, SNAP recipients are required to register for work and to accept a suitable job if offered. So-called ABAWDs — able-bodied adults without dependents, ages 18-49 — are limited to 90 days of benefits in a three-year period unless they work at least 80 hours a month or are in a region that has a waiver based on high unemployment or lack of jobs. Critics say it is too easy to waive the 90-day limit.

The GOP-written House farm bill, which passed by two votes, would require an estimated 7 million “work capable” adults ages 18-59, including those with children over the age of 5, to work at least 20 hours a week or spend equal time in job training or workfare to qualify for food stamps. The Senate rejected that approach on a 2-to-1 vote on the way to bipartisan passage of its bill. President Trump has said “work requirements are imperative” for the farm bill.

Conaway say the job-training programs would be a springboard for SNAP recipients to better-paying jobs. House Democrats say the bill provides too little money to run a high-caliber training program and creates paperwork snares to push people out of SNAP.

When a farm law expires, SNAP and crop insurance remain in operation and most farm subsidy programs would run for months. But land stewardship programs would be in limbo for the most part. Trade promotion and international food-aid programs would halt.

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