After House rejection, farm bill timeline may stretch into 2019

In the last farm bill, conservative Republicans demanded the biggest cuts in food stamps in a generation, leading the House to defeat the bill in June 2013. It then took Congress more than six months to put the pieces together. The same outcome is possible now after a revolt by Republican conservatives defeated a new farm bill calling for stricter work requirements for food stamp recipients and looser payment limit rules for farmers. Once again, the delay may  stretch into the new year.

House Speaker Paul Ryan preserved a last chance to revive the farm bill this week by requesting a new vote on the legislation. To succeed, and to get the farm bill back on track, he will need the support of the conservatives who voted against the bill on Friday. Under House rules, Ryan’s motion to reconsider the 213-198 rejection of the farm bill expires on Tuesday. The debate schedule for this week does not mention a re-vote on the farm bill but “additional legislative items are possible.”

“What we’ll end up with is an extension” of the 2014 law, said Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. “Our side is not going to live with this work requirement stuff … We’re willing to go back to the drawing board and fix it (the farm bill).” But House Agriculture chairman Michael Conaway says SNAP work requirements “absolutely” must be part of the new farm law.

Since it was unveiled, the major controversy over the Conaway-drafted farm bill was its requirement for “work capable” adults aged 18-59 to work at least 20 hours a week or spend an equal amount of time in job training or workfare. The bill also tightened eligibility rules. Democrats said the combination would push 2 million people off of SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.

Meanwhile, on the farm side of the bill, an array of fiscal hawks, good-government advocates, environmentalists and libertarian think tanks attacked provisions to make cousins, neieces and nephews eligible for up to $125,000 a year in farm subsidies and to remove payment limits on some forms of corporate farming.

Welfare reform, even if limited to SNAP, is regarded as a goal by Ryan to burnish his legacy. President Trump also wants new and strong work requirements for SNAP recipients and the White House says “work reforms like those in HR 2 area critical component of any multi-year farm bill reuathorization.”

Congress is scheduled to recess at the end of this week for the Memorial Day holiday and re-convene the week of June 4. When lawmakers return, the calendar and election-year politics will begin to work against a new farm law this year. Labor Day usually marks the start of the campaign season, accompanied by legislative gridlock. The House plans seven weeks, and the Senate eight weeks, of work before the August break. It is difficult for Congress to complete work on major legislation and send it to the president in a couple of months, though Republican leaders acted swiftly on tax cuts and the House passed a healthcare repeal after an intial setback last year.

“We may be down but we are not out,” said Conaway in a statement. “We will deliver a strong, new farm bill on time as the president of the United States has called on us to do.”

But that may be wishful thinking. “In many ways, no bill is the better outcome for many Republicans,” said economist Vince Smith of Montana State University. “Instead, they can just vote for an extension through, say, March 31 of next year. That way, the House Republicans with urban constituencies can avoid being tarred with a vote to reduce the scope of food stamps. But we’ll see. It does seem fairly likely that the Senate would move forward with a bill if the House is stymied.”

Senate Agriculture chairman Pat Roberts and Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the Democratic leader on the committee, have said repeatedly they want to write a broadly popular, bipartisan farm bill and they have ruled out major changes in SNAP. Republicans have a 51-49 margin over Democrats in the Senate, where the threat of a filibuster effectively means 60 votes are needed to pass legislation. In the House, Republicans enjoy 235-193 control over Democrats with seven seats vacant.

Roberts and Stabenow are expected to introduce their bill in early June but they have announced no date for completing their work in private on the bill.

Although the panoramic legislation is called the farm bill, SNAP accounts for three-fourths of this spending. The House farm bill satisfied the top priority of farm groups – a strong crop insurance program, which protects farmers against crop losses and falling prices and is subsidized by taxpayers. It also terminated the green-payment Conservation Stewardship Program and relaxed farm payment rules while making generally minor changes to the 2014 law.

The National Farmers Union, the second-largest U.S. farm group, opposed the farm bill because it did not strengthen the farm safety net. The largest farm group, the American Farm Bureau Federation, led a block of groups in asking lawmakers to avoid amendments harmful to agriculture.

“We call on all members of Congress not to use farmers and ranchers as pawns in a political game,” said Farm Bureau president Zippy Duvall after the House defeat. “The risk management tools of the farm bill are too important, particularly at a time of depressed farm prices.”

Thirteen members of the small-government House Freedom Caucus plus three other conservatives provided 16 of the 30 Republican votes against the farm bill on Friday. Nine moderates, including the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, also voted against it along with a handful of unaligned Republicans. The easiest way for GOP leaders to assure passage of the farm bill would be to reach an agreement with the Freedom Caucus and its allies.

“It was all about timing and leverage. The farm bill, unfortunately, was a casualty,” said Rep. Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican and Freedom Caucus member. The Freedom Caucus wanted GOP leaders to call a vote on an immigration-control bill. However, Perry said “there are problems with the farm bill” for some Freedom Caucus members. Perry said he objected to the way Republican leaders prevented votes on farm subsidy reforms, such as tighter payment limits or smaller federal premium subsidies for crop insurance. “I personally was unhappy about it.”