Roberts: Pass a bipartisan farm bill before summer or risk extension of 2014 law

The leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee ruled out major changes in the food stamp program during remarks at a farm policy conference, effectively rejecting big cuts in the anti-hunger program before House Agriculture chairman Michael Conaway can write them into his committee’s version of the farm bill. Senate Agriculture chairman Pat Roberts warned that Congress must move briskly with a bipartisan farm bill or lose the chance to pass a bill at all this year.

At the Agri-Pulse conference, Roberts said he and Debbie Stabenow, the committee’s senior Democrat, are aiming for a bipartisan bill that makes “evolutionary” modifications to the 2014 farm law. Speaking immediately after the chairman, Stabenow said she was working very closely with Roberts on a bill that both parties could support. “We are going to do it regardless of what is going on in the House,” she said.

Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee shut down farm bill discussions with Conaway last week because he wants to restrict access to food stamps by able-bodied adults without dependents and limit the ability of states to waive a 90-day limit on benefits when those adults work fewer than 20 hours a week. Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said that under Conaway’s plan, SNAP enrollment would be cut by 20 percent. Conaway has maintained that “not one person would be forced off SNAP due to the work or training requirements we have been discussing.” He has not released details of his package.

“We’re not following their template,” Roberts told reporters, referring to Conaway’s draft. “We are not in that mode right now” of large cuts to SNAP. “A lot of things are on the table,” he said, describing interest in “efficiencies” and program integrity.

In a hallway scrum with reporters, Stabenow said she opposed policy changes that were designed to cut SNAP enrollment. She told the audience at the conference that she would not countenance “poison pills” that “get in the way of crop insurance, conservation, or SNAP.”

Farm income has been in a trough since the commodity boom collapsed in 2013 in the face of large harvests worldwide. Todd Van Hoose, chief executive of the Farm Credit Council, said the group’s top priority is passage of a farm bill before the 2014 law expires this fall. “There seems to be a greater sense of urgency than last time,” when wheat, corn, and soybean prices had been rising year after year.

“We either do it in April to May, that time frame,” said Roberts, “or the talk will be of an extension. … We have an obligation to move.”

An extension of the current law would keep farm subsidies flowing but would not resolve several complaints, ranging from wide county-to-county variations in subsidy payment rates to calls for a stronger safety net for dairy farmers. Growers also want a new chance to decide which of two crop programs to join: the insurance-like Agriculture Risk Coverage subsidy or the traditionally structured Price Loss Coverage subsidy. They had to choose one or the other when the 2014 law went into effect, and were locked into that choice for the life of the law.

By tradition, farm bills are bipartisan legislation, partly because arguments over crop supports tend to break down along regional, not political, lines. Roberts said there is also a practical reason for a bipartisan bill in the Senate: He needs support from 60 senators to avoid a filibuster. Republicans control the Senate by just 51-49, so Democratic support is essential. If the bill passes by a large margin, Roberts said, it will boost his chances of prevailing on disputed points when House and Senate negotiators write the final version of the bill.