WASHINGTON – Lawmakers, including some from Minnesota, hoped that this year’s renewal of the federal farm bill would offer Congress a respite from the partisan dysfunction and election-year maneuvering at the Capitol.
But negotiations have fallen apart on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, as Democrats refuse to consider Republican proposals to expand work requirements for food stamp recipients. Democrats recently directed Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the panel’s ranking member, to stop talks with Chairman Mike Conaway, a Texas Republican.
As Congress prepares to return from its spring recess, Peterson in an interview questioned whether a new farm bill will even be in place before the old one expires on Sept. 30. “Not the way they’re going about it,” Peterson said of Republicans on the committee.
The farm bill funds food assistance programs around the country as well as distributing a range of financial assistance to farmers. The heart of the current dispute centers on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Conaway’s push to impose work requirements on able-bodied recipients up to age 65.
“I am disappointed that Collin has led his team to the point of refusing to negotiate,” Conaway said in a statement to the Star Tribune. “Democrats are choosing to turn their backs on rural America in the midst of a 5-year recession in the farm economy. They are refusing to even discuss our proposal to provide a historic investment in opportunities aimed at breaking the endless cycle of poverty for SNAP recipients.”
Under current federal law, jobless people ages 18 to 49 get food stamps for up to three months over a three-year period. Conaway cautions that he’s not kicking anyone off food stamps: The plan would support states in setting up job training programs for recipients who want to continue getting benefits but aren’t working at least 20 hours a week. His plan roughly maintains funding for SNAP.
Conaway has vowed to pass a farm bill before the end of April. He told the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Convention that he spent most of March thinking that both sides were negotiating in good faith, until Democrats sent a letter withdrawing from talks (Minnesota Reps. Rick Nolan and Tim Walz, both Democrats, are also on the panel).
Nutrition programs account for 80 percent of spending in the current four-year, $489 billion farm bill; the rest goes to land conservation, crop insurance and other programs for farmers. Strengthening requirements for SNAP recipients — and efforts to wean people off the system — have in recent years been a GOP proxy for entitlement reform, nearly derailing the last farm bill in 2013.
That year, the House voted down a proposed farm bill as Democrats argued that cuts to food stamps went too far and conservatives maintained that they did not go far enough. Congress finally passed a revised version of the legislation in 2014 that largely kept the SNAP program in place.
Peterson said he believes some Republicans are focusing on the wrong changes to the food stamp program. While the number of food stamp recipients has risen 268 percent in Minnesota over the last decade, most beneficiaries are children, senior citizens or people with disabilities.
“There’s a common perception out there that there’s a lot of people drawing government benefits that are able to work that are not working, and I don’t think that’s very widespread,” Peterson said.
Peterson said that administrators of SNAP in Minnesota and North Dakota were shocked when he told them about the proposal to subject people in their 50s and 60s to work requirements, given the difficulty for people to find a job at that age if they are laid off. He’s more concerned with tightening up the USDA’s granting of state waivers that allow some exemptions to food stamp requirements, and he believes the proposed job-training initiatives are a waste of money and add more government bureaucracy.
“There’s elements in this thing that we agree on, but I think they’re just working on the wrong issues and I’ve had one of the Republicans say to me … something has to be done that there’s a perception that people aren’t working,” Peterson said. “So now we’re going to legislate perception, I guess.”
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, has also conveyed that he won’t support a bill that substantively changes SNAP. Minnesota’s two U.S. senators, both members of the Agriculture Committee, share that position. The legislation can’t pass without Democratic support in the Senate, given that it needs 60 votes and Republicans only have 51.
“Any attacks to the nutrition title threatens the entire farm bill,” said Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., in a prepared statement. “The farm bill has historically been very bipartisan, and I hope that we can continue that tradition.”
Peterson said he had been willing to go back to the table despite pressure from some fellow Democrats to withdraw from negotiations. Now, Peterson and other Democrats are working on an alternate bill.
“We believe that it’s best if we have bipartisan committee support and that we don’t turn this into a partisan battle like so many other things in D.C.,” said Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Papp. “We believe they need to work together to get this out of committee and sometimes that means negotiating.”
He noted that the agriculture community is dealing with low commodities prices, financial stress and the threat of a trade war with China.
“There’s just a lot of uncertainty in agriculture and that’s why the farm bill is so important,” Papp said.