By Chris Clayton
DTN Policy Editor
DTN Political Correspondent
OMAHA (DTN) -- The House version of the farm bill could come to the floor Wednesday afternoon. With the legislation come expectations of a full-blown partisan fight over increased demands on some people who receive food aid and an effort to ward off any floor debates that would ding crop insurance or commodity programs for farmers.
The House Rules Committee met late Tuesday afternoon to set the initial ground rules for debate for HR 2, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018. The House is expected to seek to advance the bill to the Senate sometime on Friday. Democrats have already made it clear that House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, is going to have to rely solely on GOP votes. With a 235-193 split in Congress (seven vacancies), Republicans can afford to lose 20 votes and still pass the bill.
The letters of support and opposition continued as various groups, including House Agriculture Committee Republicans, took to social media to stake their claim on the farm bill.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce wrote a letter to members of Congress on Tuesday supporting the farm bill due to the "meaningful work/job training requirements for able-bodied adults," citing the most common problem among Chamber members, "regardless of size, industry, or location is the increasing difficulty and, in some cases, inability to fill open positions with qualified, skilled applicants."
The work requirements in the farm bill for food-aid recipients in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) "are likely to increase the size of the labor force," the Chamber stated. The Chamber calculated that, in fiscal year 2016, this potential unused labor pool was about 8.3 million people. The Chamber noted the new farm bill would also increase funding for job training to $1 billion a year. To read the Chamber's full letter to House members, visit https://agriculture.house.gov/….
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also sent a letter Tuesday backing the SNAP changes, citing that SNAP should be temporary assistance. Walker's letter said Wisconsin implemented work requirements and asset limits "and the results have been telling." Walker cited that, since those changes, more than 25,000 people have returned to the workforce. Based on 2017-18 data, that has reduced Wisconsin's SNAP population about 4%.
While the Chamber sees prospective job applicants, 31 "green groups" sent a letter to Congress calling on lawmakers to oppose the farm bill because of "myriad anti-environmental provisions and attacks on conservation." The groups also added they believe the changes to SNAP would make it harder for low-income people to put food on the table. The groups criticized changes to pesticide regulations in the farm bill, changes to the Endangered Species Act and conservation cuts of about $800 million, tied to the elimination of the Conservation Stewardship Program.
Further, the green groups also cited the threat to states' authorities by the inclusion of a provision by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that would prevent state and local governments from restricting the sale of a food or commodity item that meets all federal standards. "It would also strip the public of state law protections for agricultural products, and the accompanying right to enforce those protections through access to state courts."
Another group of left-right critics will hold a press event Wednesday -- their second event in the past few weeks -- to voice their complaints that the farm bill "wastes billions in subsidies to millionaires and billionaires." This group includes the Heritage Foundation and Environmental Working Group, along with R Street Institute, National Taxpayers Union, Taxpayers for Common Sense and Citizens Against Government Waste. They are urging the House to "rein in waste in (the) farm bill."
With at least six amendments seeking to dial back crop insurance costs, the House Agriculture Committee sent out a video Tuesday morning citing that the crop insurance system is working as intended. A statement with the video warned, "But cuts to the program in the form of subsidy caps, Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) means testing and elimination of the harvest-price option will kill the crop insurance program." Those comments and others in the video came from comments at farm bill listening sessions last summer. To view the video, visit https://www.youtube.com/….
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., has been posting quotes and letters of support for the farm bill from various groups as well, citing "a cornucopia of support" for the bill. That included quotes from Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, and Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, as well as the handful of groups that represent different segments of the crop-insurance industry. To read more of what Rep. Scalise posted on his website, visit https://www.majoritywhip.gov/….
The Democratic National Committee, citing several news outlets on SNAP changes, sent out a release early Tuesday declaring "Republican Farm Bill Threatens Food Security for Millions of Americans."
Last week the American Farm Bureau and 300 other organizations sent a letter to lawmakers asking them to stand against amendments "that would hurt farm and ranch families. Specifically, the letter cited the collapse of farm income while opposing amendments that would "propose to gut crop insurance, undermine sugar policy and impose unworkable payment limits." A copy of the letter can be found here: https://www.fb.org/….
Among those pushing some of the amendments is Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., a perennial farm bill critic and the sponsor or co-sponsor of 10 amendments filed on this year's bill. Blumenauer wants a chance for debate over long-term farm policy if the bill comes to the House floor this week.
Blumenauer has a following, but he doesn't have a seat on the House Agriculture Committee, and his involvement in the farm bill has long annoyed major farm groups that consider him a provincial, urban amateur who is playing at national farm policymaking.
In a telephone interview from Portland late Monday, Blumenauer signaled that even though farm groups fear that some of the amendments he is backing such as cutting the sugar and crop insurance programs could pass, his larger purpose is to take time to bring up some of the farm bill issues for which he has been known for years: the high cost of commodity programs and crop insurance, the emphasis on commodity crops versus specialty crops, making conservation programs more accountable and focusing on issues such as clean water rather than cleaning up animal agriculture operations.
"Resources are skewed toward people who don't need it," Blumenauer said. This year's farm bill, he added, is "worse than the status quo" because it makes it easier for big farmers to collect more government money and cuts conservation spending in addition to the changes it makes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
The House Rules Committee is scheduled to meet again Wednesday afternoon to discuss how many of the amendments filed -- 109 so far -- will be allowed for debate. It's unclear whether any of Blumenauer's amendments will be ruled in order.
Blumenauer spent more than two years talking to people, primarily in Oregon, about what "a farm bill would look like for us." He has written what might be called an Oregon coastal-centric bill since it does not focus on commodity agriculture.
Blumenauer said his "farm bill just for Oregon would treat California better and people in New York and Florida end up much better off."
He also said that smaller and medium-sized operators in major commodity-producing states would also do better because subsidies would be limited.
Blumenauer, whose district includes nurseries, Christmas tree farms, berry production and urban agriculture, would spend more on specialty crops and conservation. But he expects to find common cause on the House floor with hard-right conservatives on cutting crop insurance and commodity payments.
Blumenauer said he is "under no illusions that my alternative is going to be in order, but this is the first step in a long drama."
"Because there are such bitter divisions, I think it is highly likely that without significant opportunity to discuss the amendments, this bill is likely to be stopped in its tracks," Blumenauer concluded. "If it isn't, it will be stopped in the Senate. We have two, three, four months to focus on what a better farm bill looks like."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@DTN.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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