After Congress approved a $1.3 trillion spending bill last week came the perspective that the appropriations package would be the last major bill passed by this Congress.
It's only late March, but the House of Representatives has just 65 legislative days left this year until a month-long break in October and early November to campaign.
Meanwhile, the farm bill is growing more partisan in the House. While their Senate counterparts appear in more lock-step -- meaning less willing to fight about nutrition programs -- both parties in the House are willing to draw lines in the sand over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Nutrition programs, mainly SNAP, are the big spending items in farm bill, taking up 71% of USDA's funding in FY 2018. SNAP is also the biggest driver of savings from the 2014 farm bill because the number of people on the program has fallen.
So there's the backdrop of impending mid-elections and dropping people social-welfare programs following a large tax-cut bill. Still, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, signaled over the weekend he's going against expectations and will drive ahead with a farm bill even though Democrats on his committee are balking at Conaway's proposals for SNAP.
Conaway addressed the issue at the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Convention in Texas, and reported on by Oklahoma Farm Report. Conaway's speech was then transcribed by the University of Illinois' farmpolicy.com
Conaway told the cattlemen he would move forward and find 218 votes on the House floor to pass a farm bill even if Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee aren't willing to participate.
The chairman also said in his speech he was determined to change policies on SNAP to provide skills for those able-bodied but unemployed people and get them into the workforce. Further, Conaway said, "It will be mandated that anybody 18 to retirement age who is not pregnant, who is not mentally or physically disabled and is not a caretaker for a child under six, that person can participate in the program if they want to. If they want to participate, then they’ll need to work for 20 hours a week, or they need to train, or they need to do an apprenticeship, or they need to do subsidized work, whatever it is that’s out there. We’ve got an array or list of things that are out there."
Conaway added, "If you want to help yourself, we're going to help you. We're going to give you that hand up."
He also said of SNAP that "not one person gets kicked off the program."
Conaway talked about making sure any program costs stay in parameters of the Congressional Budget Office score on the costs of the current farm bill. Conaway has been told he won't have any new money, but he won't have to cut spending.
Conaway added, "I'm not taking any money out of SNAP. Whatever dollars are changes as a result of policy changes we plow back into SNAP and to the program that I'm talking to you about. On the other side, all the other programs, I'm deficit neutral there as well."
Citing the economic pressure facing farmers, Conaway said farmers deserve a sound agricultural policy over the next five years. "There is no reason for us not to get this done by September 30. There's no reason for extensions. There's no reason for the drama associated with not getting our work done."
Conaway added had been working hand-in-hand with Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee. He had told Peterson last October the concepts Conaway was working on. In Early February, Conaway gave Peterson the specific language on SNAP. Conaway said the two leaders were talking in good faith until House Democrats on the committee sent a letter to Peterson saying, "We don't trust you to negotiate nutrition, so get off the field."
With that, Conaway pushed back on the argument that the policy changes amount to what Democrats called "extreme partisan politics." Conaway countered that the Democrats' stance on SNAP is "why they abandoned rural America."
The Democratic letter, written two weeks ago, called on Peterson, “to abstain from further negotiations until the chairman agrees to share the legislative text and its detailed impact with members of the committee." And added, "While we understand the chairman’s intent to withhold legislative language, we cannot, in good faith, agree to any deal without ample time to review proposed policies and their impacts on our constituents."
Democrats noted in 23 hearings on SNAP there was never any testimony "in favor of radical reforms to SNAP, including drastic changes to the amount, administration, and delivery of benefits,
Then Peterson sent out a brief statement last week on behalf of Democrats on the committee. The statement read, “The Democratic members of the Agriculture Committee are unanimous in their opposition to the extreme, partisan policies being advocated by the Majority. This opposition will not change.”
Peterson spoke Monday with Mike Adams on the Adams on Agriculture radio program, which also was transcribed by farmpolicy.com. Peterson said he had not spoken with Conaway since Peterson issued a statement March 20. And Peterson doesn't think Conaway can get a farm bill passed in the House without Democratic support. Peterson pointed to the leadership of the Freedom Caucus as a stumbling block for Conaway, then there are some moderates in the GOP that also would resist cuts or changes to SNAP.
"So if that's true, that's 50 people, and I don't know how you pass a bill," Peterson said.
Peterson said opposition isn't from him, but his membership. He indicated he tried to soften the some of the SNAP impacts, which he wasn't able to do. Peterson had to eventually share information about the SNAP proposals and the projected cuts with other Democrats "and that just made them all the more adamant that they weren't going to support any bill that had this stuff in it."
Peterson added that his members oppose the work requirement and training language in the bill. They also oppose eliminating the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Democrats oppose eliminating broad-based categorical eligibility and opposing tying SNAP to child-support collection. Peterson said it also did not make any difference to his members if he and Conaway were able to drop some of these proposals.
"So, you know, it's not something I can do. I can't lead people that don't want to be led -- so we are where we are, you know," Peterson told Mike Adams.
Peterson said he thinks the farm bill will be extended into 2019. He disputed the idea, though, that Democrats are trying to delay the farm-bill process as much as possible to get through the mid-terms. (A columnist from a competing news organization floated that idea, which Peterson dismissed. Yet, the idea shouldn't be far from the realm of possibilities.)
"That is absolutely not true," Peterson said. "I have said publicly a number of time that is not something I'm looking forward to, if we do get in the majority, that I would be in charge of trying to get a farm bill done because I'm not sure it could get done if we're in charge because of the divisions that have been created here."
Conaway speech: https://goo.gl/…
Peterson radio interview: https://goo.gl/…
Thanks to farmpolicy.com for the transcripts.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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