House Democrats are considering how firmly to dig in on farm bill issues they care about as they anticipate partisan fights over food stamps, climate change and other matters as lawmakers approach the expiration of the current law.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the chairman of the House Agriculture and Nutrition Task Force that held its final forum July 13, said there are limits to how far the Democrats are willing to compromise as they seek to influence the bill that sets farm policy for about five years. The current law expires Sept. 30.
“If we’re going to get a farm bill, it has to be inclusive. At some point, we’re going to have to work together,” he said Thursday.
“I think now is the time for Democrats to look seriously at what our values are as Democrats,” he said, adding that there is particular concern “for those individuals who don’t have the lobbyists or other things but they are Americans. They deserve just and fair consideration. There are a lot of Democrats who are not going to support a farm bill that is punitive.”
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a task force member and a longtime advocate for policies to deal with hunger, was blunter about a clash between Democrats and Republicans over policy and priorities. “Democrats, he said, “need to be on the offensive and drawing lines in the sand now. We can’t settle for the lesser of two evils,” he said Thursday.
The task force plans to deliver recommendations to other Democrats by the August recess as they prepare for an expected Republican push to chip away at a major nutrition program and to reverse efforts to mitigate climate change. Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., appointed task force members in May and they have since held roundtables in California, Connecticut, Mississippi and Wisconsin and have met with Agriculture Department officials, including Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for farm production and conservation.
The House and Senate Agriculture committees have begun drafting sections of their respective reauthorization bills but full drafts are unlikely to be released before September, leaving few legislative days to finish the job. None of the committee leaders has publicly said the current law will need to be extended to provide more time.
The farm bill addresses a broad range of food and agriculture issues and getting the mix right has usually resulted in bipartisan floor support for the bill. But that isn’t always the case. The 2014 and 2018 House farm bills encountered trouble on the floor during Republican majorities because of GOP disputes and Democratic opposition to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program provisions. The bills eventually passed the House, and negotiations with the Senate produced compromise bills that passed both chambers.
House Agriculture Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson who has pledged to deliver a bipartisan bill, said the Democratic recommendations will join recommendations from other sources the committee has received.
“I’m thrilled any time somebody is talking about the farm bill whether it is this stealth operation that they are doing or I read clips about members on both sides of the aisle who are doing their own listening sessions back in their districts,” Thompson said last Thursday. “At some point, I’m pretty certain they will communicate with the committee, which will be good.”
McGovern said he is particularly concerned that Republicans will push for more changes to SNAP after Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., won concessions in the debt ceiling package on expansion of work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents. As a result, state agencies have begun to phase in an increase in the number of people whose food aid benefits will be limited to three months out of every 36 months unless they can document they work 80 hours a month or that they are getting work training.
The debt ceiling agreement steadily ratchets up the age of adults who have to meet the new requirements, to those through the age of 55 in fiscal 2025. The requirements currently apply to those through the age of 49, but the age will begin rising by Sept. 30. The changes expire in fiscal 2030.
“Nutrition is the largest tranche of the farm bill, but if you target that you have poked the bear,” Bennie Thompson said.
The Congressional Budget Office’s projection of baseline funds for a new farm bill estimates SNAP will account for more than 80 percent of mandatory spending over 10 years. The program serves 40 million adults and children a month in urban and rural areas. SNAP advocates are also calling for legislation that would expand access to healthier foods for participants and end a ban that bars people with drug felony convictions from qualifying for food benefits.
Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., said she wants an innovative farm bill that is “forward thinking, that builds capacity and infuses the pipeline and builds the next step so we are not putting Band-Aids on generational problems.”
Hayes and McGovern also are members of the House Agriculture Committee and will be part of the markup of a draft farm bill.
Task force members also said they are worried by Republican discussions about repurposing nearly $20 billion provided for Agriculture Department conservation programs to address climate issues. Hayes said it should not be a fight to have climate-smart practices in agriculture. Farmers in her district tell her they want to incorporate those practices into their operations, but need funding to cover the upfront costs, she said.
There was a moment of call-and-response as Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, identified two priorities.
“I hope we can all agree that none of us will support a farm bill that makes one more person hungry. Can I get an amen?” he asked, receiving agreement.
“All of us should oppose a farm bill that cuts any of the climate-smart funding included in the Inflation Reduction Act. Can I get an amen for that, too?” Faber asked, referring to the 2022 package that provided billions in conservation funding.
The United Farm Workers, a union that represents agricultural workers, said workers should be eligible for financial aid when natural disasters disrupt farm operations and put them out of work for prolonged periods. Elvis Rodriguez, a National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association intern at the union, said Hurricane Charley destroyed his family’s Florida home in 2004 and upended their lives. He said they received no help in rebuilding, leaving him to feel that they are constantly struggling to survive.
Bennie Thompson said another goal should be “create a path” for new farmers, particularly those in urban operations, to participate in farm and conservation programs.
Dania Davy, director of land retention and advocacy at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, also called for a farm bill that gives Black and minority farmers tools and funding to overcome the cumulative effects of discrimination in Agriculture Department lending programs. Davy said directing 13 percent of conservation funding to Black farmers and landowners would help them prepare to enter private carbon or environmental markets which are seen as potential 21st century revenue generators for farmers.