Food stamp revisions possible but not radical change, says key House Democrat

States have abused their discretion in order to keep able-bodied adults on the food stamp rolls, said Collin Peterson, the Democratic leader of the House Agriculture Committee, suggesting that some changes were possible in the anti-hunger program but also warning that attempts at radical reforms could blow up the 2018 farm bill. Although chairman Pat Roberts continues to work on the farm bill, the Senate Agriculture Committee is effectively sidelined because neither party holds a majority at the moment.

With the departure of Sen. Luther Strange, who was defeated in the Republican primary election in Alabama, the Senate panel has 10 Republican and 10 Democratic members. Majority-party Republicans will name Strange’s replacement after Senate leaders decide whether party ratios on all committees must be adjusted because Democrats narrowed the GOP margin of control with the election of Doug Jones in Alabama.

“Chairman Roberts will continue to work on the farm bill while the committee is waiting on information about its makeup,” said a committee spokeswoman. “We should know something within a few weeks on members and [whether)] ratios will change.” The senior Democrat on the Senate committee, Debbie Stabenow, is committed to working with Roberts for a bipartisan bill. During work on the 2014 farm law, Stabenow, then committee chair, was a steely defender of food stamps.

The farm bill is panoramic legislation that sets the terms for crop subsidy, soil conservation, food stamp, ag research, farm export, and international food aid programs. The 2014 law costs around $90 billion a year, the bulk of it in food stamps, which help poor people buy food.

During an interview on KGFO-AM in Fargo, N.D., Peterson said the House Agriculture Committee was expected to begin “markup” of its version of the farm bill in late January, with “the idea of trying to get it done by the end of February or the first part of March.” An aide to Rep. Michael Conaway, the committee chairman, told Ag Insider, “The chairman’s goal remains the same: to get the farm bill done first quarter of this year” — meaning House passage of the bill.

Bipartisan support for the 2018 farm bill is possible, said Peterson. “The only thing that can blow it up is if they get too carried away on the food stamp stuff.” The House defeated the farm bill in 2013 when die-hard conservatives demanded the largest cuts to the program in a generation.

“There’s things in food stamps that need to be reformed, that could be better,” Peterson told KGFO “News and Views” host Joel Heitkamp. “I’ve indicated to the chairman and others on the [Republican] side … that as long as you work with us, work with me, we can come up with something here that will placate some of the folks on your side and still get Democratic votes and get this done.”

Conaway has said he wants “meaningful reforms” in food stamps in the 2018 farm bill and has advocated stricter eligibility rules for able-bodied adults without dependents, known as ABAWDs. They are limited to three months of food stamps in a three-year period unless they work at least 80 hours a month or spend an equal amount of time in workfare or job-training programs. States are allowed to waive the 90-day limit on benefits during periods of high unemployment or when there are insufficient jobs. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said last month that food stamps should not be “a permanent lifestyle.” The USDA is working on a proposal for “modifying ABAWD time-limit waivers with the goal of moving individuals to work as the best solutions for poverty.”

On KGFO, Peterson said states “have undermined federal law” with their use of waivers. “That’s what I’ve been telling the chairman — that if we’re going to fix this, this is one of the areas we should be working on.”

Lawmakers would “blow up” the farm bill, according to Peterson, if they proceed with ideas such as splitting the farm bill in half, a step employed in 2013 to hack away at food stamp benefits, or decide to let states implement work rules for food stamp recipients as part of de facto block grants, a proposal broached by the Secretaries’ Innovation Group, composed of Republican officials who run state social service agencies.

Food stamp benefits “are modest; households get an average of just $1.40 per person per meal. Policymakers cannot cut this program significantly without reducing the ability of many poor families to put food on the table,” said the think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The 2018 farm bill “is going to be very much an extension of current law because we don’t have any additional funds to put into the bill,” said Peterson. He said he was working with South Dakota Sen. John Thune to expand the Conservation Reserve to 32 million acres, from its current limit of 24 million acres, by reducing payments to landowners to 80 percent of local land rental rates. Those payments are now are now on par with local rates. In addition, Peterson said he wanted to expand nationwide the current restriction in the Northern Plains against crop insurance for virgin grassland converted to cropland.

To listen to the KGFO-AM interview with Peterson, click here.