Washington Insider -- Thursday

Complicated Farm Bill Fight

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

Commerce's Ross Sounds Warning On NAFTA 2.0 Talks

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Tuesday that NAFTA negotiators need more progress soon or they may not get a NAFTA deal. Ross raised the possibility talks may not finish until the end of the year, or possibly ever.

“If we don’t see progress soon, we probably won’t see it for quite a little while, the end of the year, if it all,” Ross said during a speech at the Council of the Americas’ annual conference. “But regardless of the outcome of NAFTA, the United States will always be fully engaged with all of the countries of our hemisphere.”

Ross said the administration was “somewhat encouraged” by how the negotiations are going, but “in a few weeks the calendar will start working against us,” referring to upcoming Canadian provincial elections, the Mexican presidential election in July, and the US midterms in November, all of which will make it too difficult to negotiate, he said.

Meanwhile, USDA Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs Ted McKinney told the same group that it was not unusual for the toughest issues to be left until the end of trade negotiations, but expressed hope talks would close soon.

Democratic Senators Ask Icahn, EPA's Pruitt on Refinery Waiver Details

Six Democratic senators have asked investor Carl Icahn and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt to explain how an Icahn-owned refinery secured an EPA exemption from the nation's biofuels law.

The request was made in letters sent late on Tuesday and reviewed by Reuters, which reported last week that EPA granted a small refinery hardship waiver from the nation's biofuel laws to an Oklahoma refinery operated by Icahn's CVR Energy Inc., allowing it to avoid costs related to the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

"We ... are troubled that a company that is owned by a billionaire former 'special adviser' to the president who is currently under investigation by federal prosecutors ... has now received an 'economic hardship waiver'," the senators wrote in the letters to Icahn and Pruitt.

Washington Insider: Complicated Farm Bill Fight

The Hill is reporting this week that a Republican-led effort to overhaul the nutrition programs in this year’s farm bill is sparking a bitter fight in the House, which could derail the measure’s chances for passage.

The draft legislation would tighten the work requirements for food stamp recipients and shift more federal funding toward job training — a key priority for retiring Speaker Paul Ryan, R., Wis.

While the provision has helped woo conservatives who would normally oppose the farm bill, the stricter eligibility requirements have repelled moderate Republicans and nearly all Democrats, The Hill says.

“I have concerns regarding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” said Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., who is facing a tough reelection bid. “Those from New Jersey who have come into my office have said they would be unable to fulfill the requirements.”

A few hard-line conservatives oppose the proposal because it doesn’t actually cut funding from SNAP, also known as food stamps, which provides food assistance to low-income individuals and families.

Republican leaders have been working to build support for the plan over the past few weeks, including through listening sessions. USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue rallied support for the farm bill during a GOP whip team meeting on Monday, while House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, highlighted the SNAP reforms during an American Enterprise Institute event on Tuesday.

“We’ve got to sell folks on this issue,” Conaway told reporters. “AEI is one of the most thoughtful think tanks.”

Conaway also said he is still working to sell the legislation to some of his own colleagues. “I’m telling folks there are certain issues that we cannot let kill the entire bill,” he said.

The legislation authorizes a variety of federal food and agriculture programs, but the majority of the funding goes toward SNAP.

Under this year’s bill, all able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 59 have to be working or enrolled in a training program for at least 20 hours per week in order to qualify for food stamps. People who are elderly, disabled or pregnant would be exempt from the requirements. The SNAP revamp is considered a legacy item for Ryan, who has sought to enact welfare reform as part of his “Better Way” agenda.

But the GOP conference is fiercely divided over the food stamp changes.

“There’s some openness to supporting it. But some people are going to be for it, some people are going to be against it,” said Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., who said he is still undecided on the bill.

“We’re undecided at this point, but leaning in the right direction for them,” said Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., head of the conservative Republican Study Committee. But other conservatives question whether the food stamp changes go far enough. They want to see funding for the program significantly scaled back.

“I like that it’s actually doing something on SNAP. But it seems to me, if we’re going to do something, we should be really aggressive on it,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a Freedom Caucus leader. “I’ve got to see if this is good enough.”

The farm bill wouldn’t cut funding from SNAP, but it would shift money toward work training programs. “I’m just wondering how many new federal workforce development programs we need,” Jordan said.

A number of conservative groups have also come out against the farm bill, including FreedomWorks, Club for Growth and Heritage Action.

The tougher eligibility requirements are a non-starter for Democrats, who walked away from the normally bipartisan farm bill process when Republicans decided to include the SNAP revamp. They say the proposal is unnecessarily cruel and would prevent 1 million people from receiving food stamps.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the House minority whip, predicted that the food stamp changes could derail the entire farm bill’s chances for passage. And even if it passes the House, it stands little chance in the Senate. “It is my understanding they don’t have the votes on their side of the aisle.”

“They’re deeply divided, mainly because they have a large number of people who want to make the nutrition title of the farm bill even worse, cut more people off [from] having availability of nutritional services,” he added.

Conservatives have other fundamental issues with the bill, such as concerns with the crop insurance and commodity programs included in the measure.

"There’s a number of people wanting amendments,” said Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C. “My understanding is that [leadership] would, but I don’t know that.”

Conaway recommended that leadership allow a structured rule but said lawmakers shouldn’t be allowed to offer amendments if they aren’t willing to support the final bill.

“If you’re a no already on the bill no matter what, then why would you get a poison-pill amendment added to make it worse for everybody else?” Conaway said.

So, we will see. It would be somewhat strange if the farm safety nets were weakened or dumped at a time when major markets are under political pressure from advocates of a very unpopular trade negotiating effort. Should that happen, a new bipartisan “farm safety net” advocacy likely will emerge from somewhere as Democrats rethink their current positions, Washington Insider believes.

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