House Farm Bill Passes

Farm Bill Squeaks Ahead After Getting Tied Up in Partisan Divide, Immigration Debate

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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After a defeat last month, the House version of the farm bill passed on Thursday. (DTN graphic)

OMAHA (DTN) -- In a 213-211 squeaker, the Republican-led House of Representatives passed its version of the farm bill Thursday afternoon, a month after the same exact bill went down in defeat.

The farm bill got its votes, all Republican, after House leadership agreed to hold votes on immigration bills championed by conservatives. The initial immigration bill that GOP members wanted still failed earlier in the day.

Democrats remained unified against the House version of the farm bill because of changes in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that will make it more difficult for people without children to continue receiving assistance unless they are working or going through job training. The bill also makes it harder on states to raise income caps for people to remain on SNAP assistance.

SNAP is used by 40 million people and nutrition programs overall would take up 77% of the projected $867 billion in farm-bill costs over the next 10 years. Yet SNAP also was the driver for the lion's share of $100 billion in projected savings over the current farm bill because of the improved overall economy.

House Republicans want people defined as able-bodied adults without dependents to perform 20 hours of work or job training weekly to get SNAP benefits. The bill also changes income eligibility standards by states, limiting SNAP enrollment to people making 130% of the federal poverty level, or under, to receive SNAP benefits. Currently, some states go as high as 200%.

Getting votes for passage was a victory for House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, who had to watch the bill go down in defeat last month because of unrelated immigration fights within his own caucus.

"Today's vote was about keeping faith with the men and women of rural America and about the enduring promise of the dignity of a day's work," Conaway said. "It was about providing certainty to farmers and ranchers who have been struggling under the weight of a five-year recession and about providing our neighbors in need with more than just a hand out, but a hand up. I'm proud of what this body has accomplished, and now look forward to working with the Senate and the president to deliver a farm bill on time to the American people."

By advancing the bill, it gives time in July and August for the House and Senate agriculture committees to negotiate on a final conference bill. The Senate is expected to take up a bipartisan farm bill on the floor next week that does not include any of the House language to tighten SNAP eligibility.

"I congratulate Chairman Conaway on successfully navigating his farm bill through the House," said Senate Ag Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan. "I look forward to working with him and his colleagues in conference once the Senate passes our farm bill. Our farmers and ranchers need certainty and predictability. They are counting on us."

The House farm bill gets different marks from groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union. Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall called the passage "a big win for America's farmers and ranchers." Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said his group "is disappointed by many components of the House's version of the 2018 farm bill."

The House farm bill makes few changes to the commodity programs farmer rely on. It does change the Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) to use crop-insurance data to calculate yields. The House bill also eliminates the individual farm coverage under ARC and sticks solely with the county program. The bill maintains the same reference prices for nearly every commodity in the Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program.

The House bill would eliminate new signups under USDA's largest conservation program, Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). The contracts for the current 72 million acres in CSP would continue until they expire, but no new enrollment would be allowed. Instead, the bill would investment more in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) would increase by 5 million acres, to 29 million acres, but would reduce rental rates to 80% of the current average county rental rate for ground. USDA would require more frequently updated rental rates under CRP as well. The Senate version of the bill would go to 25 million acres and lower rental rates to 88.5% of the county rental rate.

Neither the House nor Senate farm bill includes language tied to the White House reorganization plan that would move the SNAP program from USDA over to the Department of Health and Human Services. USDA's Rural Housing Service would move to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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Chris Clayton