At this point in an election year, Congress is usually functionally checked out. With midterm races to worry about, legislators have neither the bandwidth nor the political cover or daring to take on controversial bills. Given how inept this Congress especially has proven itself to be, and the stakes of this November’s elections, you might think that legislators won’t tackle another major bill this session. But, thanks to a looming legislative deadline, Congress has one more big-ticket item to consider this year, arguably the most important thing it will tackle in 2018: This week, the House and Senate are expected to begin work on a consensus Farm Bill.
Only part of the Farm Bill concerns American farmers. The omnibus bill, which is updated at least every five years, also sets priorities and funding for a host of energy, environmental, infrastructure, job creation, and research programs, ranging from home loans for farmers to rural broadband support to land grant university funding. And it governs one of America’s most famous and vital safety-net components, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a.k.a food stamps, which covered 42 million people, including 19 million children as of 2016.
“The Farm Bill doesn’t make for sexy headlines,” Andrew Bahrenburg of the National Young Farmers Coalition, told me. “But it impacts a lot of the big debates happening in the proverbial public square right now.”
This year’s Farm Bill is shaping up to be a particularly complex mess. The House and the Senate have drafted wildly divergent visions for what the final product should look like, setting up a battle that could have major implications for the future of America’s food systems, environment, and economy. With that in mind, I recently reached out to a number of Farm Bill experts to get a better grip on what the emerging battle lines on this bill are, and how they will play out in the remainder of the year.
Farm Bills always trigger debate. Usually, former secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman told me, those fights center around farm subsidies, the billions the government shells out to ostensibly protect American growers from disasters like blights or bad weather and buffer them against volatile markets. Legislators have always jostled about which commodities to prioritize; programs that benefit cotton growers, for instance, might hurt corn growers. They also argue about who ought to be entitled to subsidies, with critics on both sides of the political spectrum noting that farm payouts often seem to go to larger or wealthier operations, or to managers who don’t actually run their farms. However, until recently legislators have been able to make compromises, avoiding the rancor that often poisons other major bills in the modern era and passing functional packages on time.
But the last time Congress started work on a Farm Bill, in 2011 in anticipation of a late 2012 deadline, negotiations fell apart thanks to disagreements about, among other things, SNAP and the land conservation programs the bill governs. The rancor around these provisions lasted until well into 2014, when, after extending the prior 2008 farm bill twice to buy time, Congress finally managed to work out a functional compromise.
This year, disagreement over the Farm Bill is even fiercer. House Republicans have doubled down on demands for new work requirements on SNAP recipients, a focus on altering the program that Glickman told me is more intense than anything he’s seen over the last five or six bill cycles. The general divergence between House and Senate visions for the bill exceed what experts have seen in the past as well. “The House and Senate bills are night and day,” said Reana Kovalcik, a spokesperson for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
The House’s bill, passed with no Democratic support in mid-June, focuses on adding new work requirements on SNAP recipients. Current law requires any able-bodied adult between the ages of 18 and 49 who is not caring for a dependent to do an average of 20 hours of work or job training per week to get assistance for more than three months. House Republicans want to extend these requirements to adults up to age 59 who are not caring for a child under the age of six, with a failure to comply once leading to a year without access to benefits, and multiple failures leading to three years without access. It would also slowly push up work or training requirements up to 25 hours per week over the next few years.
These new requirements would likely impact several million SNAP recipients. Their bill would also eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program, which helps farmers maintain air, soil, and water quality on their lands. It slices funding for programs that support organic and local food. And, said environmental and food law policy expert Sarah Morath, it contains provisions that would undermine environmental protection regimes. In other words it is a classic conservative move to slash government programs and restrict benefits in the name, Republicans say, of pushing people to find work and balancing the budget.
Well, except for one respect. As Daren Bakst of the conservative Heritage Foundation notes, the House vision for the bill creates “more loopholes so that people not engaged in farming, by any reasonable measure, can receive subsidies.” The income caps for those subsidies would be raised as well.
A week after the House laid out its vision, the Senate passed its version of the bill. This one is actually a bipartisan product, backed by every Democrat and all but 11 Republicans in that chamber. Their bill leaves SNAP largely untouched; Democrats argue the House’s reforms would do less to help people find jobs and more to increase bureaucratic expenses and build enrollment barriers that could kick up to 2 million people off of SNAP. It also maintains the conservation program the House proposes cutting, although with slightly reduced funding. And it closes loopholes and strengthens limits on who can receive farm subsidies.
While these are all potential flashpoints, the real line in the sand is the House’s demand to reform SNAP. The Senate is adamant that it will not adopt the House’s proposal, because that chamber needs Democratic votes to pass a Farm Bill and Dems are a hard no on these ideas.
House Republicans certainly knew that their SNAP ideas would not fly in the Senate. So why did they insist on taking a hardline position? Glickman suggests they may be hoping to generate “welfare reform debate.” That’s a priority they have had no other avenue to pursue this year. Conservatives in the House initially tried, in May, to link the Farm Bill to a hardline immigration measure that would have cut legal immigration by about 40 percent as well. But that was too much even for some House Republicans, and it never got out of the chamber.
Some experts hold out hope that political forces will push the House and Senate to compromise between their polar opposite bills by the end of September. Four years of poor farm commodity prices and the coming doom of Trump’s trade wars mean farm constituencies are counting on a new bill passing in time rather than an extension of the old bill, so that they know what they’re working with by the next growing season. Failing America’s farmers just before an election would not be a good look for the GOP, noted Bahrenburg. Doar added that Republicans are also likely aware that if they dally, they risk losing the House and thus any chance of passing even minor SNAP tweaks or conservation cuts.
“They probably want to push as far as they can, wherever they can, even if they are ultimately unsuccessful in negotiations with the Senate,” said Brookings Institute Congress watcher Molly Reynolds. “Being able to say that they pushed to impose stricter work requirements, etc., is itself an important end for many in the House GOP.” That matters especially in an election year. Who knows, they could even wrest a minor concession or two from the Senate as well, perhaps just in the nitty-gritty details of SNAP management, added Doar.
But counting on this Congress to successfully manage brinksmanship would not be the world’s wisest bet. Negotiations could break down for any number of reasons, especially if legislators feel they can get away with extending the 2014 Farm Bill, as they have been willing to do with a number of other programs recently even at the risk of doing serious damage to their own constituencies. President Donald Trump, whose administration has come out in favor of the House’s SNAP reforms, could also pull his unpredictable shtick once more and refuse to sign a functional compromise bill, further complicating negotiations.
“Whether or not Congress can get a new Farm Bill by the deadline depends on a lot of political dynamics that are hard for us to telegraph,” said Kovalcik. Morath, for one, thinks there is sufficient reason to worry that Congress will extend the 2014 farm bill into 2019 or 2020, leaving farmers, poor families, and the programs serving them afloat but largely paralyzed, uncertain about when or how Congress might radically change their economic realities.
This tangle is frustrating to many observers because, aside from potential reforms to SNAP, conservation, and subsidy eligibility, the bill largely leaves dozens of other programs alone. “Which is interesting,” said Bahrenburg, “given how much farmers are hurting right now. Normally, when these headwinds are blowing in the face of the agriculture community, you might see some pressure brought to bear on more extreme measures to alleviate those concerns.”
Instead of big ideas with an eye to the future that might inspire hope for American agriculture and nutrition, farmers, poverty reduction advocates, and everyone else affected by the Farm Bill are left only with doubt. That doubt could be resolved within weeks through effective conferencing between the House and Senate. Or it could drag on for months as entrenched ideological positions bicker endlessly. Looking at this Congress’s performance on resolving ideological and inter-chamber conflicts thus far, which do you think is more likely?
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