How The Midterms And Lame-Duck Session Are Pushing The Farm Bill To A Deal

Nov 20, 2018
Originally published on November 20, 2018 9:50 pm

House and Senate negotiators are reportedly close to finalizing a framework on a farm bill compromise in hopes it will pass both chambers of Congress and be on the president's desk by the end of the year.

According to a spokesperson for Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., House and Senate committee staff worked through the weekend and again on Monday "exchanging offers daily" as last details are being ironed out.

The latest wrinkle in the ongoing negotiations centers around fighting the deadly California wildfires that have claimed the lives of at least 79 people. While surveying the devastation over the weekend, President Trump pledged $500 million dollars in the farm bill intended for forest management.

In a press call with reporters on Tuesday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue urged lawmakers to include funding in the farm bill for fighting wildfires.

But other factors have caused farm bill talks to intensify in recent days, the outcome of the midterm elections chief among them.

Not only did Democrats wrestle back control of the House starting in 2019, the party's big victories effectively dashed any hopes House Republicans had of getting additional work requirements for food stamps in the final bill. Because, with new members coming, it's all about compromise, and fast.

Despite its name, the bulk of the farm bill – roughly 80 percent – goes to funding SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides nutrition to approximately 42 million low income individuals in the U.S. The program is most commonly known as food stamps.

The House version of the farm bill passed by a razor-thin margin and with only GOP votes. It includes stricter work requirement rules. By contrast, the Senate's was overwhelming approved in a bipartisan manner, with no major changes to the food assistance program.

Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, is the House Agriculture Committee Chairman, who has been pushing for stricter work requirements for SNAP recipients — including raising the age limits of adults who are required to work or be enrolled in a job training program, as well as stiffening the penalties for violating the work rules.

"The Senate Bill is not perfect ... I don't believe it is. We're working to get what we can on SNAP and make the product better than what it currently is," Conaway said.

He admits the midterms killed most of his leverage to keep work requirements in. He's now left with few options.

Conaway can hold the line on the work requirements issue. The drawback being nothing gets passed in the lame duck session and Democrats rewrite the farm bill when they assume control of the House in the new Congress.

Or work out a compromise that looks a lot like the Senate bill, which largely leaves SNAP unchanged.

Tom Vilsack, a former Democratic Governor of Iowa and Agriculture Secretary under President Obama said it "behooves" House Republicans to not wait until next Congress to pass the legislation.

"Figure out a way for the chairman to save face and get this thing through the process so that he can point to the fact that he passed a farm bill during the time he was chair," Vilsack said.

Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, disagrees. He believes federal spending on SNAP needs to be reined in and said now is the time for House Republicans to stand firm.

"I think they have more leverage than they think they do," Rector said.

"They way the program survives without being changed is that they kick the can down the street, but they kick it five years at a time." Rector says Congress should be forced to renew the bill every six months. Not every five years, how it is now.

The current farm bill expired Sept. 30.

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When Congress returns to Washington after Thanksgiving, members will be under pressure to pass a farm bill. The outcome of the midterm elections has changed negotiations on this major piece of legislation, as NPR's Brakkton Booker explains.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: The farm bill is typically an exercise in bipartisanship. But in an election year, it's no surprise why this farm bill has yet to bear fruit. Here's President Trump on the day after Democrats won back the House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Everybody wants it. The farmers want it, but the Democrats are not approving the farm bill with work rules.

BOOKER: Here's the background on those work rules. Despite its name, the bulk of the farm bill - about 80 percent - goes to funding SNAP. That stands for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Most people simply call it food stamps.

At issue is a proposal from the House calling for stricter work requirements for those getting food assistance. It expands the age of those required to work or be enrolled in job training, among other things.

Mike Conaway is the GOP chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. He's confident that after months of negotiations, lawmakers are getting close to a final deal.

MIKE CONAWAY: I've got responsibilities to - to work on behalf of the House and get what we need to get out of the bill. And we're still working on that.

BOOKER: The House bill narrowly passed and with only Republican votes. The Senate version, meanwhile, was overwhelmingly supported by Democrats and Republicans. Again, Congressman Conaway.

CONAWAY: The Senate bill is not perfect. We're working to get what we can on the SNAP and make the product better than it currently is.

BOOKER: He's hoping to get one last victory for Republicans before they cede control of the House to Democrats. Conaway admits the midterms killed most of his leverage to keep work requirements in. He's now left with two basic options; one, hold the line on the work requirements issue and risk that no farm bill is passed in the lame duck - the drawback - it gets rewritten by Democrats when they are in charge of the House; or, two, pick up the Senate farm bill, which largely leaves SNAP unchanged.

Tom Vilsack is the former Democratic governor of Iowa and served as agriculture secretary under President Obama.

TOM VILSACK: It behooves the Republicans, if they want to get a farm bill done, to basically figure out a way for the chairman to save face and get this thing through the process so that he can point to the fact that he passed a farm bill during the time he was chair.

BOOKER: With all of that in mind, Vilsack says the farm bill is a complex piece of legislation. In addition to SNAP, the farm bill covers a range of subsidies for farmers, aids in conservation and boosts rural development.

Robert Rector is a senior research fellow at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation. He says the government's spending on SNAP is unsustainable, and Republicans need to dig in to keep work requirements in the final bill.

ROBERT RECTOR: Now, I think that they have more leverage than they think they do. The way that this program survives without being changed is that they kick the can down the street, but they kick it five years at a time.

BOOKER: Instead of reauthorizing the farm bill every five years as it normally is, Rector says it should be renewed every six months.

RECTOR: They should come back to it again and again and again by having short reauthorizations that require this issue to be brought up until it's resolved correctly.

BOOKER: Critics of the new work rules say if they are enacted, as many as 2 million people would have their food benefits reduced or lost altogether.

But Trump says he really wants them. If new work rules are not in the final farm bill, the question becomes, will the president veto it? Brakkton Booker, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE O'NEILL BROTHERS GROUP SONG, "FOREVER IN BLUE JEANS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.