Republican Farm Bill Sows Bipartisan Discontent

By | May 15, 2018

Farm legislation usually has enough incentives to satisfy everyone across the partisan divide in Congress. Not this year.

The Republican version set for a House vote on Friday contains so many unpalatable provisions that lawmakers from both parties are racing to dramatically rework the $867 billion bill to keep it from going down in defeat.

Democrats are seeking to undo work requirements for food stamp recipients, while some Republicans are trying to revamp sugar policies at the urging of trade groups representing Coca-Cola Co., Kellogg Co. and other sweetener users. Fiscal conservatives plan to seek cuts in subsidies for government-backed crop insurers and limits in payments to wealthier farmers.

They’re all attempts to make the measure more acceptable to various factions in the House as lawmakers consider the five-year reauthorization of all Agriculture Department programs.

The reauthorization has historically passed Congress by wide margins, given the popularity of farm subsidies in rural areas and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps, in urban ones. Its path has become more complicated with the rise of lawmakers who base their appeal on criticizing government spending.

‘Significant Changes’

At least some of the more than 100 proposed amendments may need to become part of the bill to attract the 218 Republican votes it needs to pass the House, given that Democrats likely will unite against it should the food-stamp work requirements remain intact.

Still, many of the amendments would complicate passage in the Senate, where the GOP has a narrow 51-49 majority and there’s less appetite for new food-stamp rules. The Trump administration has said it wants the legislation to include such requirements. The competing demands may lead Congress to extend current rules past their Sept. 30 expiration.

“A Republican-only farm bill needs to make significant changes to the bill to get votes,” said Josh Sewell, senior policy analyst for Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington, a critic of government subsidies. “There is significant appetite for reform to both the farm safety net and the nutrition sides of the bill.”

The last farm bill, approved in 2014, was delayed for a year and a half after a rebellion among Tea Party Republicans caused a plan drafted by the House Agriculture Committee to fail on the House floor.

Cutting Spending

That legislation was split into separate farm-subsidy and food-stamp plans that made cuts to both. But the farm bill was sewn back together in conference with the Senate, and many of the touted budget cuts were simply evaded, frustrating conservatives who failed to tame the massive bill.

This time, some lawmakers are hoping amendments will cut spending more than the mostly rural lawmakers on the House Agriculture Committee would want.

They include: reducing federal subsidies for crop-insurance premiums; cutting a government-subsidized profit margin for crop insurers; limiting which items can be purchased with food-stamp benefits; and scaling back an initiative that automatically qualifies many federal welfare recipients for food stamps.

The amendments pit the agriculture panel’s chairman, Representative Michael Conaway of Texas, against proponents of cutting federal spending, including the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, Republican Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, and Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican.

‘Strengthen’ the Bill

“We’re hopeful to get some amendments put forth that strengthen the farm bill,” Meadows said last week. “If it does, then I think you’ll find a number of Republicans willing to come on board” who might otherwise vote it down, he said.

Conaway is asking the House Rules Committee, which meets Tuesday, to limit amendments only to those offered by supporters of the bill.

“There are certain issues eligible for amendments that could be a problem,” he told reporters Thursday. Among bill holdouts, “I’ve got certain names that I’m working to try to get there,” to support the plan, he said.

Any plan that passes the House must be reconciled with a Senate version. Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he plans to craft his own bill that’s designed to appeal to both parties because bipartisan support will be needed for a measure to win approval in his chamber.

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