The House Agriculture Committee’s partisan impasse over a draft farm bill deepened when the panel’s Democrats delivered a letter to Chairman Mike Conaway, demanding to see the legislative text before negotiating with him further on its nutrition provisions.
Democrats have refused to go along with provisions in the bill that sources say would include several changes to limit eligibility in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, including by expanding the number of adults subject to work requirements.
The letter obtained by Agri-Pulse was signed by the committee’s Democratic members and handed to Conaway by the committee’s ranking member, Collin Peterson. The letter, which is actually addressed to Peterson, said that Democrats couldn’t continue discussions with Conaway about the bill unless they know the details of what is in the draft text.
“While we understand the Chairman’s intent to withhold legislative language, we cannot, in good faith, agree to any deal without ample time to review proposed policies and their impacts on our constituents,” the letter said.
Conaway declined to comment on the Democrats’ demand, as he left the House floor, saying he hadn’t even opened it yet.
Peterson later issued a statement indicating that Democratic members also want the official cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office:
"The Democratic members have made clear that they unanimously oppose the farm bill’s SNAP language as it has been described to them and reported in the press. My next steps are clear and I will not be continuing negotiations with the Chairman per the unanimous request of all Democratic members of the Committee. I have suggested to the Chairman that he make the actual language, CBO scores and potential impacts available to our Committee members. I'm not sure where this will take us but it will give the members information about what is actually being proposed."
A Conaway spokeswoman said that Peterson has had the text since early February and also has the CBO scores.
In a follow-up statement, Peterson said he withheld that information from Democratic committee members at Conaway’s request and that Republican panel members hadn't seen it either. Conaway still hasn’t provided estimates of how the bill would affect SNAP recipients, Peterson said.
Earlier Thursday, Conaway told reporters off the House floor that the negotiations were ongoing and that it was a “day to day” decision on when he would introduce the bill. He had earlier postponed the bill introduction and a committee markup planned for next week, saying he wanted to first negotiate possible changes with committee Democrats.
“Collin and I are still having conversations, I just need to leave it at that,” Conaway said.
The letter displays a breakdown in trust on a committee that is traditionally one of the least partisan in the House.
Democrats are hopeful of taking control of the House next year, but the Agriculture Committee minority members have insisted in interviews that they are not trying to slow down the bill so that it doesn’t get it enacted in 2018.
“We want to pass a farm bill this year,” the letter concludes. “We look forward to working with you to develop bipartisan and bicameral legislation benefiting our urban, suburban and rural constituents.”
The committee Democrats met privately for more than an hour on Thursday to discuss the bill. Afterwards, Peterson told Agri-Pulse, “We haven’t given up yet but there’s a lot of pushback." Another senior member, Rep. David Scott of Georgia, said there was “absolutely no way” Democrats could support the legislation.
Peterson said that the Democrats’ concerns go beyond just the expanded work requirements in the bill. It would also tighten up the process called “categorical eligibility” that enables people to automatically qualify for SNAP if they receive any form of assistance from other welfare programs. The bill also targets the “heat-and-eat” provision that some states use to increase SNAP benefits.
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