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SNAP fight in House could derail farm bill

The draft legislation of the $100 billion Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 passed out of the House Agriculture Committee on April 18, but on a party line vote versus the bipartisan support the farm bill usually garners. Michelle Rook / Forum News Service

WASHINGTON — A bitter fight over reform of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program may derail the 2018 farm bill.

The draft legislation of the $100 billion Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 passed out of the House Agriculture Committee on April 18, but on a party line vote versus the bipartisan support the farm bill usually garners.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking Democratic member of the committee, says the work requirements tied to SNAP eligibility are a non-starter for Democrats.

"Because of that, mainly, there will be 100 percent opposition from the Democrats on the floor, and if they pass the bill, they're going to have to pass it with Republican votes," he says.

Peterson also claims the attempt to reform the nutrition program is coming from House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and not Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, chairman of the House Ag Committee.

"HR-1 was the tax cuts, HR-2 was Ryan's welfare reform, which he can't get done, and so now he's made the farm bill his welfare reform," Peterson says.

Democrats also charge that the job training program included in the draft legislation was not discussed in committee or during the more than 20 hearings and listening sessions the House Ag Committee held to collect input on the farm bill. However, Conaway refutes the claim.

"Ranking member Peterson had the specific language February the seventh. We shared the concepts with him back in October," says Conaway.

Conaway says once he brought the idea to the committee, the Democrats would not come to the table to negotiate. He says the Democrats can argue about the process, but they're not even trying to improve the bill.

"They chose last Wednesday to criticize the bill for some five hours, but my recollection is not one amendment was offered, not one to even strip it out and start over," he says.

Peterson says it wasn't worth their effort to offer amendments, because he predicts the House bill will fail. Instead, he'll be working with the leadership in the Senate Ag Committee to pass their version of the farm bill, which does not include SNAP reform.

"If it goes to conference in its current form I will not support the House bill. I will support the Senate, and so we'll have a conference where you'll have three against one," he says.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue says SNAP already has a title with a work provision.

"I think the committee has just said, 'We want an enforceable work requirement,'" he says.

Perdue went on to say that most Americans support a work requirement as eligibility for food assistance, and it is beneficial to the recipients.

"It's better for their family, it's better for them, and it's better for the taxpayer and the budget," he says. Plus, the job training and eligibility requirements don't impact mothers with small children, the disabled or mentally incapacitated people. "We're talking about able-bodied people who can and should be working as a matter of an independent lifestyle. And I think the education and training provides the ramp up for those who are able to work."

Jon Doggett, executive vice president of the National Corn Growers Association, has watched the farm bill process many times and says it is unusual for the legislation to become partisan. However, he says the fight over the nutrition title bogged down the last farm bill as the House attempted to split nutrition from the farm program.

As far as the committee's desire to stem back abuse in the system, Doggett says there is abuse in all government programs.

"There's more abuse and fraud in the crop insurance program than there is in the food stamp program," he says.

Aside from the SNAP fight, most House Ag Committee members and farm groups agree on the rest of the farm bill language.

"We'd like to see a few things tweaked," Doggett says. "Hopefully we'll get that done in the Senate, but by and large, it was a good bill that came out as far as the corn industry goes."

Conaway says the House farm bill will be on the floor as soon as he can convince the leadership he has the 218 votes needed for passage. Chandler Goule, CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers, says he's confident in the leadership of both the Senate and the House Ag Committees. He believes they can come to a resolution on SNAP to pass a farm bill before the current program expires September 30.

"I'm still trying to get to 218 (and to 60 votes depending on which chamber you're in) and SNAP is going to be the key," Goule says.

Perdue was also optimistic about the outcome.

"I applaud House Chairman Conaway in getting the bill out, and I believe he will have the votes in the House to pass the bill," he says.

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