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House Ag passes farm bill draft, with Dem concerns

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The contentious 2018 federal farm bill has been approved by the House Committee on Agriculture – it is based largely on the 2014 model, with minor changes in much of it but broad changes in little.

As in 2014, perhaps the most contested part of the proposed bill is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Issues began in March, when Democratic committee members asked to see the bill, since they had only been told what was in it and not given the text with the proposed language for certain sections.

Other changes they object to would remove dollars from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to fund other conservation programs the Republicans in the committee think will work better, said Chair Michael Conaway (R-Texas). The current CRP tracts would be funded to the end of the contract period, but no new contracts would be issued.

He said the 2014 farm bill had big changes to many of the programs, but the 2018 bill tries to adjust the programs to make them work better, without substantial changes in most cases.

Vice Chair of the agriculture committee Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Pa.) said the focus on changes to the nutrition program is disappointing. Now that the Democrats have seen the bill, they were able to submit amendments. Thompson said earlier discussions with Democrats did result in some changes to the bill, but that no Democrats suggested amendments.

The changes to SNAP would require eligible adults between 18-59, with no disability or children that are too young for school, to work or receive training 20 hours a week. Thompson said states would have the ability to grant waivers to anyone.

Conaway said America is a free country and no one has to work if they don’t want to, but most Americans support the idea of having a work requirement for SNAP benefits. “For those folks who want to help themselves and get off that endless treadmill of poverty, we’re going to give them a helping hand. Maybe not as much of a helping hand that they want, but it’s still a helping hand,” he added.

Ranking Member of the agriculture committee Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said he supports getting people back to work. Before the conversation between the Democrat and Republican lawmakers stopped, he requested the proposed program be reviewed by workforce development experts.

Peterson said those experts expressed reservations about the ability of states and the workforce development community to operate a program of the magnitude proposed in the farm bill.

“It is clear that this legislation would create giant, untested bureaucracies at the state level. It cuts more than $9 billion in benefits and rolls those savings into state slush funds where they can use the money to operate other aspects of SNAP,” he said.

“Let me be clear: this bill, as currently written, kicks people off the SNAP program. The Chairman may call them ‘self-selections,’ but let’s call this exercise what it is: Reducing SNAP rolls.”

He said he has concerns in four areas: the repeal of Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility, severing the link with the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), creating a state bureaucracy of untested and unproven employment and training mandates and the child support piece.

The proposed SNAP changes also adjusts some language, allowing farmers and food banks to work more closely together, and allowing farmers to donate fresh fruits and vegetables directly to these. Baseline funding would be provided for the Food Insecurity Incentive Program to help teach people on SNAP benefits about nutrition and encourage good nutritional choices.

The states are being encouraged to watch for abuse, Thompson said. It is estimated about $70 million in SNAP benefits is being abused. If states identify cases of abuse of the program, the state government will be able to keep 50 percent of the money and reinvest it in programs that address nutrition.

Peterson insisted the Democrats didn’t walk away from the negotiating table – they were pushed away by an ideological fight that killed the farm bill in 2013. Additional areas of concern he highlighted include a baseline for animal disease prevention, the Organic Research Initiative and the Beginning Farmer & Rancher Development Program.

The energy title and $500 million from the Rural Energy for America Program was eliminated. There is no mandatory funding for scholarships at 1890 institutions, better known as land-grant colleges and universities.

Conaway said there isn’t money available to increase the research budget across the board, but some was moved to provide more research into organic farming.

Money was also made available to research and start a vaccination bank for foot-and-mouth disease. Conaway said questions about where the vaccine would be stored, what to do with the vaccine when it’s close to expiration and how much to have on hand need to be addressed.

“This is a flawed bill that is the result of a bad and non-transparent process; I oppose it,” Peterson said. “A safety net for those who produce our food and those who need help purchasing it remains the most important part of our work on this committee. It is the cornerstone of this legislation, and this bill will ruin it.”