Washington Insider -- Monday

Early Farm Bill Fight Over SNAP

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

TPP Reentry Dangled By Trump, Then Tempered

President Donald Trump's meeting with farm-state lawmakers on trade at the White House Thursday saw Trump call on senior officials to assess the potential for the US to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement.

But in a late-night tweet Thursday, "Would only join TPP if the deal were substantially better than the deal offered to Pres. Obama," Trump said on Twitter. "We already have BILATERAL deals with six of the eleven nations in TPP, and are working to make a deal with the biggest of those nations, Japan, who has hit us hard on trade for years!"

Still, U.S Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and National Economic Council chief Larry Kudlow will examine the issue, with Kudlow telling the New York Times, “This whole trade thing has exploded,” Kudlow said. “There’s no deadline. We’ll pull a team together, but we haven’t even done — I mean, it just happened a couple hours ago." Trump also told lawmakers things are "close" on NAFTA, but others signaled that statement covered a wide range of possibilities, in that it could take weeks to months or more.

USTR Reviewing GSP for India, Indonesia and Kazakhstan

Whether imports of certain products from India, Indonesia and Kazakhstan should continue to see duty-free treatment via the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) is being assessed by the Office of the US Trade Representative.

For India, the review is on access to the India market for US dairy and medical products while the review for Indonesia links to their market access related to its compliance with GSP provisions on services and investment.

For Kazakhstan, the review is relative to the country not adopting internationally recognized worker rights. “GSP provides an important tool to help enforce the Trump Administration’s key principles of free and fair trade across the globe. The President is committed to ensuring that those countries who receive GSP benefits uphold their end of the bargain by continuing to meet the eligibility criteria outlined by Congress,” said Deputy USTR Jeffrey Gerrish. “We hope that India, Indonesia, and Kazakhstan will work with us to address the concerns that led to these new reviews."

Washington Insider: Early Farm Bill Fight Over SNAP

Well, the current farm programs are expiring this year and the House Agriculture Committee recently released its renewal plan—including changes that would reshape the nation’s largest domestic food aid program, consolidations for some conservation efforts and tweaks for farm aid.

House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member, Collin Peterson, D-Minn., represents a western Minnesota district and farmers are important economic sector in Minnesota. He recently told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that this year’s bill “arrives amid controversy over its focus on shifting funding within the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program into work and training programs.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, has scheduled a markup for the bill April 18, but the current draft does not have the support of Democrats who worry that its tougher work requirements could push some participants out of the program by making it difficult to meet the terms.

Although it is early in this year’s debate, the talk has already become somewhat heated as Democrats are refusing to consider the Republican proposal for expanded work requirements. They recently directed Peterson to stop talks with Chairman Conaway.

As a result, Peterson said he doubted whether a new farm bill will even be in place before the old one expires on Sept. 30. “Not the way they’re going about it,” he said of Republicans on the committee.

The heart of the current dispute centers on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance and the leadership’s push to impose work requirements on able-bodied recipients up to age 65.

“I am disappointed that Collin has led his team to the point of refusing to negotiate,” Conaway told the Star Tribune. “Democrats are choosing to turn their backs on rural America in the midst of a 5-year recession in the farm economy. They are refusing to even discuss our proposal to provide a historic investment in opportunities aimed at breaking the endless cycle of poverty for SNAP recipients.”

Under current federal law, jobless people ages 18 to 49 get food stamps for up to three months over a three-year period. Conaway cautions that he’s not kicking anyone off food stamps: The plan would support states in setting up job training programs for recipients who want to continue getting benefits but aren’t working at least 20 hours a week. His plan roughly maintains funding for SNAP.

Nutrition programs account for 80% of spending in the current bill while the balance goes to land conservation, crop insurance and other programs for farmers. Strengthening requirements for SNAP recipients — and efforts to wean people off the system — have in recent years been a GOP proxy for entitlement reform, nearly derailing the last farm bill in 2013, the Star Tribune says.

That year, the House voted down a proposed farm bill as Democrats argued that cuts to food stamps went too far and conservatives maintained that they did not go far enough. Congress finally passed a revised version of the legislation in 2014 that largely kept the SNAP program in place.

Peterson said he believes some Republicans are focusing on the wrong changes to the food stamp program. While the number of food stamp recipients increased sharply during the last decade as the economy weakened, most beneficiaries have been children, senior citizens or people with disabilities, he said.

Peterson noted that SNAP administrators in his home region were shocked when he told them about the proposal to subject people in their 50s and 60s to work requirements, given the difficulty people have finding jobs at that age if they are laid off. He’s more concerned with tightening up the USDA’s granting of state waivers that allow some exemptions to food stamp requirements and he believes the proposed job-training initiatives are a waste of money and add more government bureaucracy.

“There’s elements in this thing that we agree on, but I think they’re just working on the wrong issues and I’ve had one of the Republicans say to me … something has to be done that there’s a perception that people aren’t working,” Peterson said. “So now we’re going to legislate perception, I guess.”

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has also said that he won’t support a bill that substantively changes SNAP. Minnesota’s two U.S. senators, both members of the Agriculture Committee, share that position. The legislation can’t pass without Democratic support in the Senate, given that it needs 60 votes and Republicans only have 51.

“Any attacks to the nutrition title threaten the entire farm bill,” said Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn. “The farm bill has historically been very bipartisan, and I hope that we can continue that tradition.”

Peterson said he had been willing to go back to the table despite pressure from some fellow Democrats to withdraw from negotiations, although he says that he and other Democrats are working on an alternate bill.

So, the farm bill debate likely faces a long and controversial road ahead—especially given the current bitter battle over trade policy and spending. Producers feel that they are being ignored in spite of the strong support provided to this administration—so, this year’s replacement bill likely will provide a number of tests of political loyalty and support in the months ahead, Washington Insider believes.

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