Washington Insider -- Friday

Ag Policy Peace Avoided

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

Trump Signs Farm Bill, References New USDA Rule On SNAP

President Donald Trump signed the 807-page farm bill into law, capping off a process that was filled with fits and starts as the legislation finally ended up being approved by both chambers via overwhelming votes.

"Today's action will help Americans transition from welfare to gainful employment, strengthening families and uplifting communities," Trump said. "That was a difficult thing to get done, but the farmers wanted it done. We all wanted it done. I think, in the end, it's going to make a lot of people very happy."

Getting to the point of Trump's signature had been an arduous task as the House-passed version of the bill included new work requirements for recipients under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), provisions that prompted every Democrat in the House to oppose the bill. And those work requirements were also rejected by the Senate and in the end, they were stricken from the bill.

Trump made mention of a USDA proposal unveiled earlier in the day that would propose changes to the program.

Now that the bill is signed into law, USDA will embark on the process of implementation. That is a process that will take countless hours and weeks ahead for the agency as it takes the legislative language and develops the regulations that will bring the measure to farmers.

While the program changes are not significant, there are several areas where USDA will make changes to reflect adjustments in areas like commodity loan rates, changes to the Ag Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) programs. Conservation programs were also adjusted in the bill, all areas where USDA will have to change regulations that came with the 2014 Farm Bill.

The regulatory timeline will go well into 2019 and will culminate with farmers being allowed to enroll in the new programs for the 2019 crop season and beyond. But they will get a choice in the farmer safety-net programs starting with the 2021 crop year.

Opposition to Moving ERS/NIFA Continues To Grow

USDA's proposal to move the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) outside of the Washington, DC, metro area remains a plan that is generating more and more opposition.

The latest voices that have been added to the choir opposing the move are all Democratic members of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. The lawmakers, headed by Reps. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Mark Pocan, D-Wis., introduced legislation Thursday to thwart the move.

The Agriculture Research Integrity Act of 2018 would specify that ERS, NIFA and the National Ag Statistics Service (NASS) remain under the Undersecretary for Research Education and Economics, and "may not be vested in the head of another agency within the Department." That provision aims at the plan to reorganize the reporting structure for ERS and NIFA, putting them under the Office of the Chief Economist.

As for the physical relocation of ERS and NIFA to somewhere outside the Washington, DC, metro, the legislation simply states those agencies must remain "within the National Capital Region."

The legislation is also backed by some Democratic members of the House Ag Committee along with Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

Washington Insider: Ag Policy Peace Avoided

In case you wondered whether things would get too quiet in the ag policy area now that the formal Farm Bill debate has ended, you can relax – USDA is proposing a modified rule to more strictly enforce existing work requirements on more food-stamp recipients by reining in states’ ability to waive time restrictions, Politico said this week.

The rule was released at the same time the president was expected to sign the bill into law, an intentional link, Politico said.

The proposal, which was initially expected to be released before the midterm elections, is the administration’s response to concessions House Republicans made on food stamps in the final bill. The bill does not mandate stricter work requirements or tighten eligibility criteria for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, which accounts for more than three-quarters of farm bill spending.

The White House and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue had backed the House Republican efforts to overhaul the nutrition programs. The president used his Twitter platform to press for stronger work requirements, even late into conference negotiations, where food stamps were a major sticking point.

Ultimately, the farm bill dispensed with all of the House GOP’s controversial SNAP proposals, and left out an effort by Senate Agriculture leaders that could have blocked USDA’s regulatory action.

The regulations USDA is proposing targets a group of Supplemental Nutrition participants known as able-bodied adults without dependents, or ABAWDs, which includes recipients ages 18 through 49 who are not disabled or caring for children or other dependents. As of 2016, they accounted for a small slice, 3.8 million, of the nearly 40 million Americans who receive SNAP benefits to help them purchase groceries.

Under current law, ABAWDs can’t receive food stamps for longer than three months during a three-year period, unless they are working or enrolled in an education and training program for at least 80 hours a month. However, states can waive this time limit when unemployment is high or there aren’t enough jobs available — an opportunity that was utilized widely during the recent recession, Politico noted.

The proposed rule would tighten the criteria states must meet when applying for waivers from USDA, and it is projected to save an estimated $15 billion over a decade, Brandon Lipps, administrator of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, told reporters.

Nearly 74% of the ABAWD population, or about 2.8 million people, do not work. That figure is tracked by states, USDA says. An estimated 755,000 of these individuals would lose SNAP benefits over three years if the USDA proposal is implemented. Lipps said the number of areas across the country with waivers would shrink by 75%.

Currently, 36 states and territories waive the time limit for at least some portion of their ABAWD population. Seven have statewide exemptions, including Alaska, Louisiana, New Mexico and the District of Columbia.

California, Florida, Texas and New York all have partial waivers. They are the four most populous states and also happen to have the largest ABAWD populations. In 2016, USDA estimated that there were 570,000 ABAWDs receiving SNAP benefits in California.

The proposal makes several major changes to the criteria used to determine whether states or regions qualify for waivers. States have a handful of ways to qualify: Their unemployment rate can be above 10%, or they can demonstrate that they don’t have enough jobs available.

Lipps said clarity has been lacking in how an “insufficiency of jobs” in an area is substantiated, and that’s allowed waivers to be approved for states or regions where unemployment is as low as 4%. USDA’s plan would set a firm unemployment-rate requirement of 7%, Lipps said.

USDA said the current proposal would not affect as many SNAP participants as the House GOP’s farm bill would have, but “anti-hunger groups are likely to decry the administration’s proposal as too harsh on low-income families.” Politico said.

Senate Agriculture ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said the USDA proposal “blatantly ignores” the compromise farm bill heading to Trump’s desk, as well as more than 20 years of history giving states flexibility to request waivers based on local job conditions.

“I expect the rule will face significant opposition and legal challenges,” Stabenow said. “Administrative changes should not be driven by ideology. I do not support unilateral and unjustified changes that would take food away from families.”

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said that the USDA proposal would ensure that waivers are preserved for communities that truly need them.

“Paired with the farm bill’s modernized [education and training] programming and increased investment, this proposed rule will allow ABAWDs to seek new opportunities and achieve their goals,” Conaway said.

The USDA plans to take comments on the proposal for 60 days.

We will see what happens in this seemingly endless debate. Once a farm bill is signed into law, nearly all sides are traditionally reluctant to “reopen” to past fights that then may be difficult — or impossible — to control. However, Senator Stabenow’s reaction is likely indicative of the feelings of Democratic members of the ag establishment and likely will lead to some “midnight oil” being burned as supporters of the most recent bill consider how to react to the new effort to trim the nutrition programs, Washington Insider believes.

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