The House Agriculture Committee has taken a step toward meeting a long-term Republican Party objective of “doing something to fix” food stamps. But the step may prove to be the undoing of the new farm bill.
The Agriculture Committee, which has long prided itself as being the most bipartisan in the Congress, passed the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 on a party line vote April 18. Not a single Democrat voted for the bill, which would change eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
In the process, the lawmakers picked up opposition from one of the largest voting blocs in the country, the American Association of Retired Persons. The AARP has been sending out daily email blasts accusing Congress of trying to cut off SNAP benefits to 47 million Americans, many of them senior citizens.
“I would argue the single biggest challenge facing a new farm bill's completion in 2018 is what to do about SNAP,” said Dr. Pat Westhoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri. He was the presenter for a University of Arkansas webinar on the next farm bill: https://bit.ly/2HxLIRV.
“(House Agriculture Committee) Chairman Conaway’s draft included much stricter work requirements, job training and a lot more. Democrats on the committee have suggested that at least the earlier drafts of the chairman’s proposal were not going to be acceptable.”
And that’s not the whole story, according to Westhoff, who regularly testifies before Congress on the impact of farm policy along with Drs. James Richardson and Joe Outlaw, co-directors of the Agricultural and Food Policy Center at Texas A&M University.
“On the other hand, many Republicans say the changes being proposed are not big enough, that we need to have stricter work requirements and other things that are going to cut expenses on the SNAP program in the future,” he said. “Even though the bill has passed out of committee, can it get a majority on the House floor?
“If there's a lot of Republicans who have a challenge on the House floor with the program overall because they don't think the SNAP cuts are big enough; think they are too large; or if they have a problem with other commodity programs, will there still be enough Republican votes to put a bill over the top if most or all Democrats are in opposition because of the SNAP provisions?”
The last seven farm bills have been passed because they contained provisions reauthorizing the food stamp program. Urban congressmen, who don’t represent a single farmer, voted for farm programs because of the nutrition title in the law.
Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, has said he believes few changes will be made to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the Senate version of the farm bill.
“He recognizes he needs 60 votes and thinks it would be very difficult to do that if there are major changes in the SNAP program,” Westhoff said. “Even if the House and Senate manage to pass a bill, can they find a compromise able to be passed by both the House and the Senate and signed by the president?”
Will Trump Sign?
The latter is also not a certainty because it’s unclear what the president will support. Former President Barrack Obama signed the 2014 Agricultural Act because it had something all parties to the legislation could live with. The current president’s budget proposals indicate he’s found very little he likes in the current law.
“The president's budget came out earlier this year, and it suggested if we keep current policies in place across the entire federal government, incorporating the new tax bill, incorporating the new budget agreement that was reached recently, we'd be looking at federal budget deficits that would reach $1 trillion by 2020 or so and be something like $1.4 trillion by 2028,” said Westhoff.
“CBO's own baseline that came out earlier this week tells a similar story, if I recall correctly, I believe it has 2028 deficits even a bit larger than that current policy baseline shown by the administration.”
The administration, which often seems to take its agricultural policy positions from the playbook of the Heritage Foundation and other anti-agricultural groups, has proposed major changes in spending programs.
“If all the president's proposals were adopted and if the economy grew at the rate that the administration expects, which is faster than many private economists think is likely under that favorable set of circumstances, the deficit still peaks at about $1 trillion in 2019 and 2020,” Westhoff said.
“But then it does turn down thereafter and gets down to a much smaller share of the federal economy by 2028. So it does suggest that we do have severe budget pressures in front of us, probably for as far as the eye can see.”
He said that if all the president’s recommendations were enacted – including cuts to crop insurance premium subsidies, eliminating the Conservation Security Program, putting new payment limits in place – farm program spending would take a hit of about $5 billion per year for the next 10 years.
To read more about the House Ag Committee farm bill, visit https://bit.ly/2HsmMeu.