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House passes its version of farm bill on tight vote

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans revived their farm bill and its expanded work rules for food stamp recipients by narrowly passing the legislation with the help of conservatives who had used the measure as leverage to get the House to act on immigration policy.

The farm bill, which is unchanged from the version that failed May 18, passed Thursday afternoon, 213-211, with no support from Democrats, who continued to denounce the GOP reforms to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as cruel and unworkable.

The bill was defeated last month 198-213 after conservatives demanded that the House first take up an immigration bill they wanted considered. That immigration bill was debated, and defeated, in a vote earlier Thursday, clearing the way for the farm bill to be reconsidered.

Passing the House farm bill clears the way for House and Senate negotiations to begin as soon as July on a final version of the legislation, so long as the Senate goes forward with plans to debate its version of the bill next week.

Upper Midwest federal lawmakers broke along party lines in the House vote on the farm bill.

The top House Agriculture Committee Democrat, Rep. Collin Peterson of western Minnesota, said Republicans took a partisan approach to the bill. The only good news from the Thursday vote, he said, was it is a step closer to a House-Senate conference committee where the final work will be done.

The Senate's version is better than what the House passed, Peterson said.

“For the first time I’ll be supporting the Senate bill more than our House bill,” said Peterson, who is a 28-year veteran of the House and has worked on more farm bills than most, in a phone interview.

He said he has no idea what will happen in the conference committee that will finalize a bill to be voted on again by both the House and Senate. “Who knows,” he simply said.

However, the current House version, he said “still leaves farmers and ranchers vulnerable, it worsens hunger and it fails rural communities."

But GOP Rep. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, who is running for governor this year, was happy.

"The House-passed legislation maintains strong crop insurance and livestock disaster programs..." she said. "Additionally, we expand support for rural broadband and increase investments in farm country."

Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, a Republican, said a highlight is eliminating the Waters of the United States effort, which farmers say puts even a water puddle under federal regulations.

Cramer said the water issue, known as WOTUS, not only would be repealed, but "it will provide a clear message to the courts and certainty to the public" as the Trump administration works to eliminate regulations like that.

He also said he was pleased the bill preserves crop insurance and the sugar program.

Rep. Tim Walz, a southern Minnesota Democrat who is making a run for governor, called the measure "an ideological bill that lacks bipartisan support."

Walz said the bill reduces funding for conservation programs and inadequately funds beginning farmer programs.

"The farm bill process used to be an example for how things are supposed to be done in Washington," Walz said. "Today, Republicans chose to once again follow the lead of Speaker (Paul) Ryan and steamroll the bipartisan process the Agriculture Committee once championed."

The president of the Democrat-leaning Minnesota Farmers Union said the farm bill disappointed him.

Gary Wertish said the worst part of the bill is "funding cuts it makes to conservation, rural development and renewable energy programs."

Like other Democrats, Wertish was unhappy with changes to SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. The bill requires more people to work before they receive food aid.

The SNAP work rules, however,  are a top priority for House Speaker Paul Ryan, although their future beyond the House is in doubt.

“This is a perfect time to pull people out of poverty, into the workforce, onto the ladder of opportunity,” Ryan said ahead of Thursday’s vote.  

“We see this as a great moment to get the folks who have been marginalized in this society, who have been on the sidelines, on to a life of self-sufficiency, to advancement.”

The SNAP reforms are the biggest difference by far between the two bills. The House measure expands the age able-bodied adults must work to 18 to 60 and adds  parents with children over age 6. They would be required to work at least 20 hours a week, and the legislation strictly limits SNAP eligibility to people with incomes that are no more than 30 percent above the federal poverty level. Under current law, people in some states can qualify with incomes up to twice the poverty level.

The Senate bill, which the Senate Agriculture Committee approved last week 20-1, contains neither of those provisions.

Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, who back the expanded work rules, acknowledged Thursday that they had no commitment from the House GOP leadership to insist that they be included in the final version of the bill that will be worked out with the Senate. “Unfortunately, we don’t,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, former chairman of the Freedom Caucus.

Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, is looking for President Donald Trump to insist the bill beef up SNAP work rules. “I hope the president sends the message. if you can’t get work requirements, I’m not going to be able to sign it," Davidson said.

The White House endorsed the House farm bill in May, saying it would provide certainty to farmers while imposing “common-sense work requirements” on SNAP recipients.

There are other significant differences between the House and Senate bills, but farm bill veterans say they will be easier to reconcile.

The House bill, for example, would raise the acreage limit on the Conservation Reserve Program from 24 million to 29 million acres and eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program. The Senate bill would raise the CRP cap to 25 million acres and preserve but cut CSP.

Both bills would leave the major commodity support programs for grain, cotton and oilseeds largely intact, the Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage, but the bills differ on payment eligibility rules.

The Senate bill also would maintain current funding levels for farm bill energy programs. The House bill would eliminate the energy title that is in the 2014 farm bill and leave energy programs without mandatory funding.

The Senate also would provide $200 million in additional funding for the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, which would get no new money under the House bill.

Brasher writes for Agri-Pulse Communications, while Davis and Amundson write for Forum News Service