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Senate may pass its farm bill version before House changes


WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. House’s inability to pass the 2018 farm bill is almost entirely a result of changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, say various sources.

As Agriculture Committee Chair Mike Conaway (R-Texas) works to get the votes needed to pass his partisan bill, in the Senate Democrats and Republicans continue to work together. The first draft of its farm bill is scheduled for committee markup this week, with no significant changes to the SNAP program.

Senate Ag Committee Chair Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) has said the Senate Republicans have to work with the Democrats because there are not enough votes to pass the bill without Democratic support. As a result, no bill with significant changes to SNAP would pass in the Senate.

President Trump has told senior lawmakers he would veto any farm bill that does not include work requirements, but Congress likely has the votes needed to override a veto. The work requirements would require any able-bodied adult between ages 18-59 without young children to work, receive training or volunteer for 20 hours a week.

Democrats in Congress have objected to the requirements and the increased pressure on states to take work hours. The problem with the work requirements is that there will be unintended consequences, said Elizabeth Wolkomir, senior policy analyst for the Food Assistance Division at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Someone who works in retail, in seasonal work like construction, shift workers or in restaurants may not work 20 hours every week. Not working 20 hours each week would immediately put the SNAP benefits for that person in jeopardy, for up to three years.

“These penalties are extremely harsh,” Wolkomir said. “It’s rigid. It’s punishing. It’s a missed opportunity to make strong investments in job-creation programs.”

She said studies have shown it takes between $7,500-$14,000 in a job training program to provide meaningful employment and get a person off SNAP benefits. Most of the job training programs last less than a year. The House bill, as introduced, spends about $30 per person per month in training.

She said studies also show the fastest way out of poverty is to work, and she supports getting people employed – but in a responsible manner that will help them find jobs to pay a living wage.

Rural and urban areas will be hit hard by the bill, she added. “It’s diverting funds from a program we know works … to a new, risky work program scheme,” she said. It will also add work to states as they track work hours, exemptions and paperwork.

The problem is not just the work requirements. Other provisions in SNAP would take food away from people, Wolkomir said. If a person’s pay increases beyond program limits, right now states can phase that person off SNAP. The new requirements would cut the funding immediately.

Vince Smith, director of Agriculture Studies and Visiting Scholar at American Enterprise Institute, said the changes in the House SNAP proposal are complex. Since the 1970s, when food assistance was added to the farm bill, the bill has always been a bipartisan measure, but Conaway has been insistent that work requirements be part of the SNAP program, Smith said.

In order to get the bill passed, he thinks the Freedom Caucus – far-right members of the Republican party – will agree to approve the legislation if an immigration bill they support is voted upon, he said. The vote on the immigration bill is scheduled for mid-June and is unlikely to pass, he opined.

In the end, he is sure the farm bill will be passed, even if it takes another year. The provisions that are set to expire Sept. 31, 2018, can be continued with a vote from Congress, as has happened in previous years.

Three of the last four farm bills were approved a year or more after they were to be approved, Smith explained. The 2002 bill didn’t face any constraints because there was a budget surplus from the Clinton administration, and it passed on time.

Richard Lugar, former Republican senator from Indiana, said the GOP is divided on how to handle the farm bill. Whatever happens in the House has little chance to pass the Senate, so whatever is being discussed behind the scenes is unlikely to be passed, anyway.

Because Senate Republicans and Democrats are working together on the bill, it is likely to pass out of the Committee on Agriculture Nutrition and Forestry quickly into the full Senate. Lugar thinks it’s likely to be approved before the House approves its version of the bill.

He said the 2014 farm bill is pretty good and doesn’t, in his opinion, need major changes, but others are using the farm bill as a political tool to get attention for different issues. “I sympathize with those trying to pass this legislation,” he added.