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The Farm Bill, once free of party politics, becomes another partisan food fight

Congress has long depended on the coalition formed by uniting agriculture and consumer interests to pass the Farm Bill. In the past, that’s warded off partisan bickering and brinksmanship.

The “farm” part of the Farm Bill accounted for over $130 billion of the 2014 legislation, much of that to fund the safety net programs that help insulate U.S. agriculture producers from fluctuations in the global market, bad growing seasons, and other outside factors.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

It’s an anxious time for farmers in America: Prices for their goods are at a five-year low. Access to a global market, made possible by free trade pacts, is under threat as the administration of Donald Trump threatens to scuttle the North American Free Trade Agreement, and talk of a trade war, replete with tariffs and countertariffs, is on the rise.

It’s also an anxious time for Americans who depend on the government’s help to eat the things farmers make: Republicans, in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, are advancing plans to cut funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP or simply food stamps, while adding new requirements to be eligible for those programs.

It’s those two constituencies who are central to the so-called Farm Bill, the massive piece of legislation that outlays hundreds of billions of dollars in funding for agriculture, nutrition, and conservation programs every five years.

Congress has long depended on the coalition formed by uniting agriculture and consumer interests to pass the Farm Bill. In the past, that’s warded off the partisan bickering and brinksmanship that has come to define the way Capitol Hill handles almost everything else.

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That has changed: In the last Farm Bill, Republicans advanced controversial proposals to cut and rework SNAP, sinking the bill on the floor of the House of Representatives in 2013, and delaying final passage of the bill for months.

Similar proposals are being floated now, as Congress faces a six-month deadline to pass a Farm Bill before funding for the previous one runs out when the current fiscal year ends in September.

With an official bill expected to be rolled out imminently, Republicans and Democrats on the House agriculture panel aren’t even sitting at the table together: Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota’s 7th District, the ranking Democrat on the committee, pulled his members from negotiations when the GOP chairman, Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, wouldn’t budge on his SNAP proposals.

The rerun of nasty Farm Bill politics in Congress is doing little to assuage advocates for farm country and for hungry and low-income Americans, who count on a bipartisan Farm Bill process that may now be past its sell-by date.

Linking food producers and food consumers

The Farm Bill, though it’s among the most significant projects Congress takes up, has historically been more defined by regional fault lines than by partisan ones, with lawmakers angling for provisions favorable to the interests they represent, whether it be Arkansas rice growers, Minnesota soybean growers, or California dairy farmers.

Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, told MinnPost that “the Farm Bill, and the Agriculture Committee in general, has always been that shining example of how Congress is supposed to work.”

Combining funding for agriculture and nutrition programs, as the Farm Bill does, was intended to bolster popular support for the legislation and help it move beyond partisan battle lines.

What’s called the Farm Bill is mainly a nutrition bill, says Marin Bozic, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in agricultural economics. In the last Farm Bill, 80 percent of the $956 billion laid out went to nutrition programs, with the lion’s share of that total going to SNAP.

The “farm” part of the Farm Bill accounted for over $130 billion of the 2014 legislation, much of that to fund the safety net programs that help insulate U.S. agriculture producers from fluctuations in the global market, bad growing seasons, and other outside factors.

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“Whenever you have a Farm Bill, you need to build a coalition of congressmen and senators who are supportive of nutrition programs, and those who are supportive of the farm programs,” Bozic explains. “Separately, neither interest group has the necessary majority to do this on their own.” Paap explains the political calculus another way: “You may not know a farmer, but everyone eats.”

But the merger of agriculture and nutrition interests has left the Farm Bill vulnerable to recent political shifts, particularly a more conservative House GOP caucus eager to cut spending on social and welfare programs. SNAP, though it is often held up as a paragon of efficiency among government programs, has been a top target: Republicans have, in recent years, proposed deep cuts to the program and changes to how benefits can be accessed.

The House’s version of the 2014 bill advanced $16.5 billion worth of cuts to SNAP, and proposed ending a standard of obtaining benefits called “categorical eligibility,” in which eligibility for one welfare program automatically makes someone eligible for SNAP.

A contentious debate over those provisions, and an unruly amendment process, led to that Farm Bill being unexpectedly defeated on the House floor in June 2013. The final version did not pass until February 2014, after intensive negotiations to work out differences. It did not make any significant changes to the SNAP program or the way benefits were received.

An unpassable bill

With the GOP in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, at least some influential Republicans are viewing the upcoming Farm Bill as an opportunity to talk up changes to SNAP.

President Trump’s budget proposal to Congress for the 2019 fiscal year requested a $213 billion cut to SNAP — a third of the program’s budget. What drew the most public criticism, however, was a proposal to replace direct benefits — money to buy food — with a “Blue Apron-style” boxed food delivery service for many recipients.

Those proposals from the White House are basically dead on arrival on Capitol Hill. Still, Rep. Conaway, the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, is advancing some of the measures that led to the breakdown in the 2014 Farm Bill process.

The House version of the bill, which is slated to be officially unveiled in early April, is expected to expand the number of people who are subject to work requirements — which can range from working at least 20 hours a week to participating in vocational training programs — in order to receive SNAP benefits.

Currently, “able-bodied” people from age 18 to 49 without dependents can get SNAP for a maximum of three months if they do not have a job. Rep. Peterson told MinnPost that Republicans want to raise the age cap, subjecting those up to age 65 to the work requirements. The Republican legislation would also eliminate categorical eligibility, which was proposed the last time around.

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These changes were unacceptable to the Democrats on the agriculture panel — Peterson said his Democrats would go “ballistic” if they saw the specifics — forcing him to tell Conaway that his members would not come back to the legislating table until the controversial SNAP-related provisions were struck or modified.

Conaway told reporters last week he was “deeply disappointed, hurt quite frankly, that Collin led his team to the sidelines” of the Farm Bill process. He added he was “excited” to defend the bill’s proposals in committee, and on the House floor in the coming months.

Rep. Collin Peterson

Peterson told MinnPost it was the chairman’s prerogative to move ahead with what he called a partisan bill, but said it has no-buy in on the Senate’s ag committee, which is not interested in a partisan battle over SNAP.

He suggested that a Republican Farm Bill, if it advances out of committee, might not even pass out of the House, given opposition to farmer safety net programs from many hard-line conservatives. “I don’t get the strategy,” Peterson said. “How you can put this back together, I don’t know.”

Marcus Schmit, director of advocacy at Second Harvest Heartland, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that runs food banks and hunger relief initiatives, applauded Peterson for holding the line on SNAP.

“It’s a period of time where programs that have effectively improved food security for millions of Americans are under threat for no good reason, from our perspective,” Schmit said.

Touting the effectiveness of SNAP and low fraud rates among users, Schmit cast efforts to “reform” the program as attempts to “wring dollars out of a program considered to be the gold standard” of federal welfare programs.

In the 2016 fiscal year, 478,000 Minnesotans participated in SNAP, with the program issuing $602 million to help them buy food.

In both urban and rural Minnesota, participation in SNAP was high. Minnesota’s 5th and 4th Congressional Districts, which comprise the urban cores of Minneapolis and St. Paul, had the highest SNAP enrollment rates in the state, at 13 and 10 percent of households, respectively. Nine percent of households in Minnesota’s 8th District, which covers the northeastern corner of the state, were on SNAP in fiscal year 2015.

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In ‘new territory’ on Farm Bill

The level of partisanship on display in the current Farm Bill negotiations, and particularly over SNAP, is worrisome to people like Gary Wertish, the president of the Minnesota Farmer’s Union.

“We’re in new territory relative to a Farm Bill,” Wertish told MinnPost. “The partisan politics we have in D.C. have slipped over into the Farm Bill, which is very unfortunate.” He lamented that Peterson had been “shut out” of the process, particularly since the 7th District Democrat, who chaired the committee from 2007 to 2011, is known for his good relationships across the aisle. (Peterson, who has been in Congress since 1991, has worked on four Farm Bills.)

Wertish suggested that the SNAP push could be coming from Speaker Paul Ryan, a longtime advocate of cutting and reworking government assistance programs. “I really think it’s more about having a message they can try to carry over into fall campaigns,” he said.

At this point, nearly all close observers of the process believe that the likeliest outcome to the partisan bickering is that Congress will punt on passing a new Farm Bill this year, and instead enact a one-year extension of the current Farm Bill.

The U of M’s Bozic said the chances of Congress passing a new Farm Bill this year are “less than 30 percent.” Peterson said that a yearlong extension is “what I’d bet on.”

The current stalemate is just one reason lawmakers might delay on the Farm Bill. Another factor is the looming midterm elections in November, which will be a drag on virtually all congressional business through the spring and summer.

Another reason is that some changes to the farming safety net for some commodities — dairy and cotton in particular — were made in February’s two-year budget deal, decreasing pressure on lawmakers to pass a new Farm Bill.

“I don’t think there’s enough fuel to bring about major reforms to the farm programs,” Bozic says, “despite the crisis in farm sector, despite lower income in the farm sector.”

Peterson says he’s noticed pressure on Congress to get going on a new Farm Bill is at a low ebb. “People aren’t talking about the Farm Bill,” he says. “They’re talking about trade. … The Farm Bill doesn’t even come up sometimes.”

A tale of two safety nets

Those in Minnesota’s farming community, like Paap and Wertish, are still strongly advocating for Congress to do something soon, despite the bleak prospects for action this year.

Paap explained that farmers, experiencing the fifth consecutive year of declining income, are deeply concerned about what could happen in a NAFTA renegotiation, and the possibility that China and other trade partners will place hefty tariffs on U.S. agriculture products after the Trump administration moved to put tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, and also many products from China.

Already, China has floated the idea of tariffs on soybeans and pork imported from the U.S. That would hit Minnesota farmers especially hard; those two products account for 40 percent of Minnesota agricultural exports. China is a top destination for Minnesota pork.

The true ag safety net, Paap explains, is trade.

“If we want to increase prices, we want to increase trade. We’re not going in the right direction. … It doesn’t look necessarily as bright in the future as we wish it does.”

“Rural America is struggling right now,” Wertish said. “We’re losing dairy farmers every day. If we keep putting the Farm Bill off, we’re going to keep losing dairy farmers.”

Farm advocates see a new Farm Bill — with stronger safety net programs for farmers — as an essential way to protect them from the fluctuations in the broader economy, and particularly any damage that could come from tariffs slapped on U.S. ag products in a trade war, or from a collapse of NAFTA.

“The safety net we have is not adequate,” Wertish says. “Farmers don’t need, don’t want, a guaranteed profit from the government. We just want to stay in business and farm another year.”

On the other side of the coin, hunger-relief advocates like Schmit say that a one-term extension of the current Farm Bill, which would ward off any SNAP cuts or changes, would not be the worst thing in the world.

“A one-year extension is probably a short-term win for the hunger-relief community,” he says. “We’re sympathetic to our friends in the ag community. They need a safety net as much as hungry Minnesotans do.”

“I think they agree that the Farm Bill works best when there aren’t drastic cuts to programs that are working,” he said.

What is more broadly at stake in the big picture, Bozic says, is whether the logic of the modern Farm Bill — marrying the interests of the people who make the food and the people who need it — will survive in this era. GOP lawmakers already attempted in 2013 to separate the nutrition and farming elements of the Farm Bill.

“The process is getting more politicized,” he says. “If the solutions are being perceived as too radical, that could be something to drive the wedge that won’t be easily healed in later cycles. It maybe the undoing of the Farm Bill as a political project that brings together urban and rural coalitions.”