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House Set to Start Farm Bill Talks With Senate Before Recess

Senate version does not include new work requirements

Rep. K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, says he is ready to go to conference on the farm bill with the Senate, but work requirements for food stamps are shaping up to be a sticking point. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, says he is ready to go to conference on the farm bill with the Senate, but work requirements for food stamps are shaping up to be a sticking point. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House is expected to trigger farm bill negotiations Wednesday, raising the House Agriculture Committee chairman’s hopes that public pressure in support of expanded work requirements for food stamp recipients could help move Senate negotiators toward accepting the House legislation.

House Agriculture Chairman K. Michael Conaway said he is ready to go to conference on the farm bill with the Senate. The Texas Republican said the House will vote Wednesday afternoon to launch negotiations with the Senate that will resolve differences between the chambers on a new five-year farm bill. The most contentious divide between the chambers is the scope of work requirements for food stamp recipients.

“I need 70 percent of Democrats in this world who believe work requirements are a proper thing and 90 percent of Republicans in this world who believe work requirements are a proper thing to tell their senator, ‘Hey, that work requirement makes a lot of sense,’” Agriculture Chairman K. Michael Conaway told the audience at an Axios forum Tuesday morning.

Conaway and ranking Democrat Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota said they expect the House to approve the motion to go to conference and that leadership of both parties will name conferees from the Agriculture Committee and from committees with shared jurisdiction over sections of the wide-ranging legislation. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the House and Senate farm bill versions would each cost nearly $868 billion over 10 years.

The Senate is likely to respond to the motion early next week with a vote to go to conference with the House and the naming of conferees, Conaway and Peterson said in separate interviews.

The vote on the motion would be to reject Senate changes to the House bill and request negotiations to develop a compromise bill. The goal is to produce a final bill that sets policies for farm, conservation, crop insurance, rural development and other programs before the current farm law expires Sept. 30.

Peterson said Tuesday night he will get a motion to instruct conferees and will propose that House negotiators insist that the final farm bill authorize mandatory funding for an animal vaccine bank and for long-term research into fever ticks, avian influenza and other diseases.

Peterson and Conaway said they will work with their Senate counterparts, Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas and ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan over the House’s August recess with conference calls and with staff from both committees working through details.

The two House committee leaders said it is possible there could be a public session of the full conference committee next week before recess starts.

The Senate version of the farm bill, however, does not include new work requirements. Many states already have work requirements, Roberts and Stabenow said during a CQ on Congress podcast last week.

“The House bill takes $8 billion and sends it to the states,” Roberts said. “I don’t know who is going to implement this. I don’t know who in the Department of Agriculture has the capability to send that money out to states. … Who is going to conduct the job training?”

[Listen: Two Senators on How They Got a Bipartisan Farm Bill]

Roberts added that in light of the ongoing trade disputes that are threatening U.S. exports, a new farm bill would provide anxious farmers and ranchers with a safety net: “Any other issue that comes up … that has to come secondary to our overall mission, which is again to provide our farmers predictability and certainty.”

Roberts and Conaway agree that getting the farm bill done by September is important to provide a sense of stability to farmers. On Wednesday, farmers from five states are expected to tell the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade how retaliatory tariffs by China and other trading partners are hurting their bottom line and rural areas that voted for Donald Trump.

Senate bill

The most sharply contested difference between the House and Senate farm bill versions is the treatment of work requirements under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program.

In the CQ on Congress podcast interview, Roberts and Stabenow said they believe they have found a pragmatic and workable approach to SNAP.

The Senate bill would keep the current 20-hour work requirements for able-bodied adults and would incorporate findings from 10 state demonstration projects that are trying to incorporate work and education requirements for working-age adults. The bill would fund an additional eight state pilot projects that focus on SNAP recipients who have problems finding work. The legislation would make it easier for state agencies to work with the private sector in training SNAP recipients for jobs. It would also end a bonus program that rewarded states with low error rates in benefit payments because of Justice Department concerns that several states manipulated data to collect rewards.

The House bill would expand work requirements to able-bodied adults ages 18 to 59 so that they keep their food benefits, requiring at least 20 hours a week of work that would be increased to 25 hours a week. The legislation also would tighten eligibility requirements, change the way monthly benefits are calculated and shift billions of dollars from food benefits into funding for state SNAP job-training and education programs.

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