WASHINGTON, Jan. 13, 2016 - After completing a series of major bills in 2015, the House Agriculture Committee will be turning to more oversight work this year.

Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, plans to continue the committee’s investigation of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The panel held its 10th hearing on SNAP on Tuesday. It will also will be looking into how the farm bill is working for producers who are struggling with lower commodity prices, he said. His focus: “Does the farm bill work? … Is it keeping people in business?”

Conaway continues to push Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to help cotton producers by allowing cottonseed oil to qualify as an oilseed for the Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage programs. Vilsack told the American Farm Bureau Federation that may require congressional action, which would throw the issue into Conaway’s lap. Conaway contends Vilsack can do it on his own.

The committee last year approved in fairly rapid order bills that would preempt state biotech labeling laws, repeal country-of-origin labeling rules, and reauthorize the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, federal grain standards and livestock reporting. The COOL repeal was enacted in December and the grain standards and livestock reporting measures passed earlier. “We had a great first year in terms of reauthorizations,” Conaway said.

The biotech labeling bill and CFTC reauthorization are still pending at the Senate Agriculture Committee chaired by Pat Roberts. The Kansas Republican wants the bills passed, but first he must move a school nutrition reauthorization measure, which the panel is scheduled to mark up Jan. 20.

Conaway’s SNAP review has been set back somewhat with the departure of a senior aide, Anne DeCesaro, who was overseeing the effort. She has returned to the staff of the Human Resources Subcommittee of Ways and Means, where she worked from 2011 to 2014.

Still, the SNAP review should fit into House Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan to undertake a broad overhaul of welfare programs in the next Congress, Conaway said. He expressed concern, however, that a series of welfare-to-work pilot projects has gotten off to a slow start. Conaway wants to use the lessons from the projects in writing the next farm bill.

“Nothing has been decided” as to how SNAP might be changed, Conaway told Agri-Pulse. “We’re just looking at SNAP to see if anything needs to be done.”

But Democrats are wary nevertheless. The ranking member of the nutrition subcommittee, Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, said at Tuesday’s hearing that he believes Republicans still want to turn SNAP over to the states to run via block grants, an idea Ryan has advocated in the past. 

“The reality is that block-granting SNAP would be catastrophic for the program. Funding would be capped and states would either have to reduce the benefit – which we know from these hearings is already inadequate – or cut people off. Either way, it would make hunger worse,” McGovern said.

When asked, each of four witnesses representing the interests of active-duty military, veterans and senior citizens said they were not in favor of block-granting SNAP.


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