Democrats Put Farm Bill Talks on Hold

Minority party says it can’t negotiate until it sees text and other info

House Agriculture ranking Democrat Collin C. Peterson says his party is done talking about the farm bill until the majority Republicans start sharing information. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Agriculture ranking Democrat Collin C. Peterson says his party is done talking about the farm bill until the majority Republicans start sharing information. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 19, 2018 at 5:04am

For those tracking the farm bill, the top question this week is whether the House Agriculture Committee chairman and ranking member can reopen talks that stalled last week, after Democrats balked at possible cuts to the food stamp program.

Rep. Collin C. Peterson, the top committee Democrat, said Thursday he would heed his colleagues’ request that he stop negotiations until Chairman K. Michael Conaway gives members the text of the proposed farm bill, along with Congressional Budget Office cost estimates and impact assessments.

“The Democratic members have made clear that they unanimously oppose the farm bill’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program language as it has been described to them and reported in the press,” the Minnesota Democrat said in a statement, referring to SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program.

“I’m not sure where this will take us, but it will give the members information about what is actually being proposed,” Peterson said, after panel members from his party sent him a letter questioning how Republicans are writing the bill and the reported cuts.

The farm bill under the Agriculture Department is always a delicate balance for lawmakers who attempt to simultaneously meet the needs of the nation’s farmers and its poorest citizens.

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Eighty percent of the legislation’s estimated $900 billion price tag over a decade is for the food stamp program, which provides benefits to more than 40 million low-income people. The remainder provides benefits for an array of farm programs, ranging from nutrition to rural development to crop insurance.

Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, has complained for several months that he has been kept in the dark on the bill.

The Agriculture Committee did not immediately issue a statement about Peterson’s decision. Conaway told reporters Thursday that he had received the Democratic letter while on the House floor, but had not had time to read it.

The chairman had hoped to release a bipartisan farm bill proposal the week of March 12, followed by a markup this week. Conaway put the timetable on hold to negotiate with Peterson in an effort to win support from several committee Democrats.

The Texas Republican could move the legislation out of committee without help from the Democrats, but that could make it more difficult to win support from the Democratic Caucus on the House floor. If conservatives were dissatisfied with the legislation, Conaway would need some Democratic votes to avoid defeat on the floor.

Peterson’s decision could further delay committee action on legislation to update the current farm bill, which expires Sept. 30.

Reviewing the rolls

SNAP was a flashpoint for Democrats and Republican conservatives during the lengthy effort to produce the current farm bill.

A committee-passed farm bill failed on the House floor in 2013. Republican conservatives who wanted more cuts converged with the majority of Democrats, who opposed several SNAP provisions, to vote the bill down.

House leaders then divided the bill into an agriculture-only bill and a SNAP-only bill with additional changes to satisfy conservatives. The bills passed individually, although the more polarizing House SNAP changes were not part of what eventually became the 2014 farm bill.

The program’s cost has fallen to about $70 billion a year as the rolls decline.

Still, Conaway wants to include expanded work requirements for able-bodied SNAP recipients, which Peterson has said could remove 8 million low-income people from the program over 10 years. Conaway counters that the number of people affected would be less than 8 million, but he has not offered an estimate. The Republican has been focused on changing SNAP work requirements since he became committee chairman in 2015.

Democrats in their letter called on the ranking member “to abstain from further negotiations until the chairman agrees to share the legislative text and its detailed impact with members of the committee.”

“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,” the lawmakers wrote.

In a December 2016 committee report on SNAP, Conaway said the program is an effective one that serves many people. However, he also said it could be improved with efforts to move people into work. States need to enforce work requirements for able-bodied adults while also improving the quality of job search and job training programs, he said.

Because SNAP is politically charged on the right and the left, Conaway has tried to walk a fine line on the program.

However, anti-hunger advocates have become increasingly concerned about SNAP’s future in a new farm bill as the Trump administration called for a welfare overhaul and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan told Americans for Prosperity activists that the farm bill would be a vehicle for GOP efforts to push its “welfare to work” agenda.

All of that has made House Agriculture Democrats wary. They said in their letter that they are “increasingly concerned about the nutrition policies being pushed by the majority.”

“At no point during the committee’s 23 hearings on SNAP was there testimony in favor of radical reforms to SNAP, including drastic changes to the amount, administration, and delivery of benefits,″ the lawmakers said in the letter. “Furthermore, we still do not have a clear picture of what is included in the bill’s other titles.”