Republicans pushed a farm bill through the House Agriculture Committee on a party-line vote Wednesday after angry Democrats variously criticized the legislation’s food stamp reforms as unjustified, unworkable and unfair to the poor.
Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said he hopes to debate the bill on the House floor sometime in May after ensuring he has enough votes to pass it.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who wants to use the bill to showcase his welfare reform ideas, welcomed the committee action. "Included in this farm bill are much-needed reforms that will strengthen America's workforce and help move people out of poverty," he said.
In addition to overhauling the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the bill that was approved 26-20 would enhance the Price Loss Coverage program for grain, oilseed and cotton producers; loosen commodity program payment limits; fund a new vaccine bank for livestock producers; eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program as a standalone program; and authorize new loans and grants for rural broadband expansion.
During a debate Wednesday that was unusually partisan for the Agriculture Committee, and at times racially tinged, Democrats did not propose any amendments to the bill, opting instead to criticize details of the nutrition title, which would expand work requirements for SNAP recipients and tighten eligibility rules.
“We’ve gone off the ideological cliff on SNAP, and that risks truly rupturing the partnership we need to pass a bill through both chambers and have it signed into law,” said the committee’s ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota.
Conaway expressed dismay that Democrats refused to negotiate on the SNAP reforms ahead of the committee markup and warned that failing to enact a new bill this year would leave numerous expiring programs without funding.
“The current farm bill is set to expire at the end of this year, so we have a duty to act,” said Conaway. “The current conditions in rural America make me feel even stronger about our obligation in this regard.”
The committee adopted 17 amendments to the bill, including one proposed by Steve King, R-Iowa, to prevent states from regulating how foods are grown or processed in other states. The amendment, which was similar to one that was adopted in the committee in 2013, also would allow lawsuits by farmers, companies, states and even the federal government, if they had been harmed by state regulations.
“We can’t let every state deicide what’s going on in the other states or we refuse to accept their products,” said King, whose state’s egg producers have been frustrated by California’s animal housing requirements.
The committee rejected, 12-33, a substitute to King's amendment by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., that would have required USDA to report on existing state laws that affect the production, sale and labeling of agricultural products.
Another GOP amendment, sponsored by Denham and adopted on a voice voice, would ban the sale of dog and cat meat. Some members of the committee, including House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said the amendment was unduly harsh because violations of the ban would be felonies.
The remaining Republican amendments, adopted as a single package, included measures that would modify a crop insurance restriction in the bill while addressing standards for broadband projects and organic food and seeking to facilitate exports of biotech products.
Most of the committee debate focused on the SNAP provisions and it was acrimonious from the outset, portending a bitter partisan debate on the House floor. The committee’s African-American members, all Democrats, were especially harsh in their condemnation.
Georgia Rep. David Scott, a soft-spoken, longtime member of the committee, said the bill played into public perceptions that unemployed, able-bodied SNAP recipients are lazy African-American men.
“This is absolutely, without question, the most terrible farm bill that we’ve ever had,” said Scott. “This farm bill is mean. The farm bill that you’re putting here is hurtful. The farm bill here is deceitful. It is un-American and it is filled with racial vicissitudes.”
Another senior African-American committee member, Marcia Fudge of Ohio, said the bill “ takes food out of the mouths of hungry children … all to pay for some experimental work scheme,” a reference to the state employment and training programs that would be funded from money saved by reducing program enrollment.
Democrats complained that the SNAP provisions would force 1.6 million people off the program, and that states wouldn’t have enough money or time to set up the employment and training programs.
The bill would require all work-capable adults under age 60, including parents of children older than 6, to work or be in an approved training program at least 20 hours a week. Under current law, that work requirement applies to able-bodied adults without dependents. These ABAWDs can be unemployed three months in every three years.
States would have two years to implement the employment and training requirement.
The bill also eliminates “broad-based categorical eligibility,” which allows states to enroll people with incomes as high as twice the federal poverty level in SNAP. The income limit nationwide would be 30 percent more than the federal poverty level. The bill does, however, increase asset limits and allow recipients to have as much as $2,000 in a savings account.
Citing estimates by the Congressional Budget Office, Democrats complained that the SNAP provisions would force 1.6 million people off the program, and that states wouldn’t have enough money or time to set up employment and training programs. The committee should instead wait for states to complete a series of pilot projects that were mandated by the 2014 farm bill to test varying approaches to move SNAP recipients into jobs, Democrats said.
“There is not a single person in this room or my caucus that doesn’t recognize and appreciate the role of work as a pathway out of poverty. What I can’t support though is a waste of billions on a program that is entirely untested,” said Peterson.
Republicans said that most of those people would decide to leave on their own or would increase their earnings enough to make them ineligible. They also argued that two years was plenty of time for states to set up the training programs.
Conaway said the bill “not only keeps faith with SNAP beneficiaries but goes a step further by offering the hope of a job and a skill and a better future for themselves and their families.”
Democrats hammered Republicans on details of the bill. Rep. Sean Maloney of New York questioned why elderly people were being exempted from a requirement that SNAP recipients provide state agencies with utility bills for calculating benefits.
When Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., responded that the exemption was requested by Democrats, Maloney questioned why disabled people weren’t exempted, too. He did not get a response.