The 2018 federal farm bill passed its first major hurdle with a decidedly partisan split over issues not directly agriculture connected.
The U.S. House agriculture committee is known historically as a bipartisan panel, but on Wednesday, April 18, the divide was deep between Republicans who control Congress and Democrats who claim they had no say in drawing up the bill. The panel passed the farm bill along party lines 26-20, divided over food stamps and lack of open discussion leading up to the vote.
“This is a flawed bill that is the result of a bad and non-transparent process,” Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota said of the 641-page legislation. “I oppose it and urge my colleagues on the committee to oppose it as well.”
Democratic votes could be needed since conservative Republicans are critical of federal money that goes to help farmers. Usually, getting the two parties together to support a farm bill has not been difficult, but if all Democrats and some Republicans oppose it, the measure could go down.
Senators are not as far along as representatives in drafting their farm bill to replace federal law that expires at year’s end.
Peterson, the top Democrat on the committee, said Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, drew up the bill without Democratic input and in the process wrote provisions that would kick millions of Americans off food stamps.
“Either Chairman Conaway has chosen not to negotiate or he was told by his leadership not to negotiate on one of the most significant parts of the farm bill,” Peterson said.
The food stamp program, officially known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, long has been included in the farm bill in an effort to attract votes from urban lawmakers whose constituents may be heavy food stamp users. Without the nutrition assistance provision, farm-state congressmen say the farm bill probably cannot pass.
Conaway downplayed the impact of his bill on the poor who get food stamps.
A farm bill is written every few years with updated and new programs for farmers and the rural economy. Committee members Wednesday said little about farms, concentrating on SNAP.
The legislation requires able-bodied adults to work or take training for 20 hours a week to get food stamps. Conaway said that the food stamp provisions provides “the hope of a job and a skill and a better future for themselves and their families.”
Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan said his northeastern Minnesota district is proof a requirement for training before getting food stamps would not work. He said the district is so large that people attending training may need to drive longer than the actual training would last.
Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat serving southern Minnesota, said that 16,000 people in his district receive SNAP benefits, and they mostly work.
Conaway started the meeting saying net farm income has fallen 52 percent the past five years. Farm bankruptcies, he added, have gone up 33 percent in the past two years.
His farm bill continues funding for several programs that would run dry without a new measure. Among areas funded in the bill are programs for technical assistance for speciality crops, looking for emerging markets, help for organic programs and help for beginning farmers.
“This farm bill also makes a major new investment in animal disease preparedness and response, including a vaccine bank, a high priority for livestock producers,” Conaway said.
The bill keeps the crop insurance program intact, reduces some federal regulatory red tape, concentrates conservation programs on land that produces crops and encourages more broadband internet development.
The chairman said the farm part of the bill mostly was drawn up in cooperation with Peterson, but admitted there was disagreement over SNAP.