House elections stamp expiration date on GOP “welfare reform in the farm bill”

Anti-hunger, small-farm, and environmental groups say the Senate farm bill is the only viable option for passage this year.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.


Backed by President Trump, House Republicans pushed for stricter SNAP work requirements in the 2018 farm bill despite strong opposition from House Democrats and senators of both parties. The midterm elections on Tuesday effectively terminated the “welfare reform in the farm bill” proposal, although it has not been excised officially.

The elections, giving Democrats control of the House beginning in January, could be the jolt that breaks the stalemate in Senate-House negotiations over the farm bill, headlined by the battle over food stamps, said analysts. In any case, the farm bill was the only item on the agenda for food and ag groups in the lame duck session. House Republicans are running out of leverage on the farm bill, since they will soon lose their majority.

Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson was expected to become Agriculture chairman in January. Peterson, a fiscally conservative “blue dog” Democrat, told a Minnesota paper last week that he believed Republicans “will come around” on their farm bill goals. The House GOP would require “work-capable” adults ages 18 to 59 to work at least 20 hours a week or spend equivalent time in job training or workfare to qualify for food stamps. “The food stamp stuff, I told them four months ago this was not going to fly,” Peterson said.

“If the House of Representatives wants a five-year farm bill … they better fish or cut bait and give up on that,” Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican, told reporters, referring to SNAP work requirements. Otherwise, he said, Congress was likely to pass a stopgap revival of the farm policy law that expired on September 30 and begin work anew in 2019 on a farm bill.

Anti-hunger, small-farm, and environmental groups say the Senate farm bill is the only viable option for passage this year. House Democrats uniformly opposed the GOP’s SNAP proposal this year, so there is little chance it would appear in a farm bill written under their control.

Aides for the “four corners,” the lead negotiators on the farm bill, had no immediate comment on the state of negotiations. The leaders set a goal in October of having legislation ready for a vote when Congress reconvenes on November 13.

“After the elections, the major players will have to make a quick decision about whether they would like the farm bill to be completed during the lame duck session,” said a farm policy expert.

“If the House of Representatives wants a five-year farm bill … they better fish or cut bait and give up on that.”
President Trump supports new or stronger work requirements for social programs, and the White House has encouraged lawmakers to include them in the farm bill. House GOP leaders saw the bill as their best chance for welfare reform this year. Trump said in late October that he was banking on Republican gains in the midterm elections. “If we don’t get more people in, I don’t know, I can’t tell you that we’re going to do work requirements,” he said at an appearance in Indianapolis.

As Agriculture chairman, Peterson could hold extensive “oversight” hearings into the operation of United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs. One farm lobbyist said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s plans to relocate two USDA research agencies could become a subject of congressional review.

Immigration reform will need action in the new session, said Dale Moore of the American Farm Bureau Federation. Lawmakers failed to agree this year on legislation to create a new guestworker program for agriculture.

Two members of the House Agriculture Committee, Democrats Tim Walz of Minnesota and Michele Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, won elections to become governor of their states. Another committee member, Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, a leading advocate of SNAP, was expected to become Rules Committee chairman when Democrats take control of the House in January.

Appointed Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, will face Democrat Mike Espy, agriculture secretary during the Clinton administration, in a runoff election in Mississippi on November 27. They were the top finishers in a nonpartisan special election on Tuesday. Two Democrats on the Senate committee, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, lost races for re-election.

Chuck Abbott Chuck Abbott is Editor of FERN's Ag Insider. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @chuckabbott1