House Republicans are aiming to include changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program work requirements in their debt ceiling proposal, a strategy that could keep the SNAP fight from bogging down consideration of a new farm bill, says House Ag Committee Chairman Glenn Thompson.

Neither Senate Democrats nor President Joe Biden are likely to accept cuts to the SNAP program, however, and Republicans haven't said they would drop the issue if it doesn't make it in a deal on the debt ceiling. 

Thompson, R-Pa., told Agri-Pulse Tuesday that addressing the issue in the debt ceiling debate ahead of the farm bill "actually would probably help take a lot of the nutrition title discussion off the table."

What the changes laid out in the proposal will look like, however, is under debate among House Republicans. Current SNAP work requirements apply to able-bodied adults without dependents between ages 18 and 49. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., has introduced a bill to expand work requirements to able-bodied adults that includes adults up to age 65 and parents with children 7 years of age and older. Parents or caregivers with a child under 18 are currently exempt.

Thompson, however, believes extending the work requirements to able-bodied adults at the age of 55 makes more sense. 

"It's a reasonable ask," Thompson said of a shift from 49 to 55. "It would actually probably help make our job a little easier when it comes to the farm bill."

Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in a speech at the New York Stock Exchange Monday, said Republicans’ proposal to raise the debt ceiling includes a number of Republican conditions, including restoring “work requirements that ensure able-bodied adults without dependents earn a paycheck and learn new skills that grow the economy and help the supply chain.” 

Johnson, who chairs the Republican Main Street Caucus, told Agri-Pulse that addressing the SNAP issue with the debt ceiling would avoid “tying up” the Ag Committee discussions over the farm bill. 

“If anything, I think it takes something that generally consumes a lot of oxygen with the farm bill and shifts it away from that farm bill discussion for the time being and moves it over to the debt ceiling,” Johnson said. “To me, this is entirely helpful to the conversation around the farm bill.”

He said Republicans are instead crafting a new SNAP proposal based on the ideas that have been offered, Johnson said.

“I don’t think the speaker is dead-set on any particular legislative text out there,” Johnson said. “We’re working on text right now, and I think it’ll probably be a combination of a number of different work requirement proposals out there.”

Thompson said Johnson's previous proposal to raise the age limit to 65 went too far. 

"Dusty Johnson's bill was inappropriate," Thompson said. "He didn't talk with me ahead of time. It was disappointing."

Johnson, in a statement responding to Thompson's comments, said he worked with Agriculture Committee staff when preparing the bill.

"Our team worked extensively with the Chairman’s team for weeks and incorporated suggested edits from Agriculture Committee senior staff prior to introducing the America Works Act," Johnson said in the statement.

While Republicans see the debt ceiling measure as a way to change SNAP work requirements, Rep. Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, told Agri-Pulse that the farm bill could be another potential avenue. 

Rep. Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican who chaired the House Agriculture Committee when a fight over SNAP entangled what became the 2014 farm bill, said there are always ways to “save a little money” while making programs more effective and more beneficial to people. He said work requirements are part of that “overall picture,” along with other potential reforms like more efficient delivery and reducing fraud.

Lucas also said he’d like to see the commodity safety net be strengthened during the farm bill, which he suggests could be done using savings from elsewhere.

“I suspect there are potentials for savings that will improve people’s lives,” Lucas said. “I would like to plow at least a little of that back into making sure we have the ability to raise that food.”

Lucas also said, however, that passing a farm bill requires a “coalition of the middle" that includes members of both parties. 

“The people on the extreme, be it left or right, they never vote for it,” Lucas said. “We just have to get the thoughtful folks who care and are willing to work to what’s doable [and] achieve a consensus to move forward.”

Industry sources say that a battle over work requirements in the debt limit debate could delay consideration of a new bill. Democratic lawmakers say that tightening work requirements is a non-starter. 

Lucas_1.jpgRep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla.

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., told Agri-Pulse Democrats won't vote for a farm bill if Republicans continue their push for changing work requirements.

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“If their aim is to increase hunger in this country, they’re on their own,” McGovern said of House Republicans. “If that’s what their line in the sand is, I will start working today to defeat the farm bill. I’m not going to stand by while they increase hunger in this country. It’s a disgusting thing to do.”

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., said the discussion over SNAP should be happening in the context of the farm bill, rather than in discussions over the debt ceiling. 

“They keep trying to rewrite the rules,” Pocan told Agri-Pulse. “We’re reauthorizing the farm bill this year and they can try to effect the changes there. But to try to hang anything on paying the nation’s debt and rising interest rates and people not getting their Social Security payments and veterans not getting their benefits is just plain stupid.”

Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director at the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger advocacy group, said the push by House Republicans on SNAP work requirements won't improve the program or help get a farm bill passed. 

“It’s a bad policy proposal,” Vollinger said. “It’s a distraction from getting something constructive done on a farm bill.”

Eric Mitchell, executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger, said SNAP and other assistance programs shouldn't be a bargaining chip in the budget and debt ceiling talks.

“Unfortunately, we’ll be talking about things like work requirements rather than trying to find ways to improve access or even expand access and affordability for low-income families as part of the farm bill,” Mitchell said. “It really changes that conversation and moves it from being an effort to try to make this a bipartisan piece of legislation that can truly end hunger to really forcing folks into their respective corners.”

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Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a response from Rep. Dusty Johnson to comments from House Ag Committee Chair Rep. Glenn Thompson.