Conservative revolt over immigration sinks House farm bill

Published: May. 18, 2018 at 12:22 PM EDT
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In an embarrassment for House Republican leaders, conservatives on Friday scuttled a bill that combines stricter work and job training requirements for food stamp recipients with a renewal of farm subsidies popular in GOP-leaning farm country.

Hard-right conservatives upset over the party's stalled immigration agenda opposed the measure, which failed by a 213-198 vote. Some 30 Republicans joined with every chamber Democrat in opposition.

The vote was a blow to GOP leaders, who had hoped to tout its new work requirements for recipients of food stamps. The work initiative polls well with voters, especially those in the GOP political base.

Key conservatives in the rebellious House Freedom Caucus opposed the measure, seeking leverage to obtain a vote on a hard-line immigration plan authored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va. Negotiations with GOP leaders Friday morning failed to bear fruit, however, and the unrelated food and farm measure was defeated.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., took steps to call for a re-vote in the future but it's not clear when the measure might be revived.

The farm bill, a twice-per-decade rite on Capitol Hill, promises greater job training opportunities for recipients of food stamps, a top priority for House leaders. Democrats are strongly opposed, saying the stricter work and job training rules are poorly designed and would drive 2 million people off of food stamps.

Currently, adults 18-59 are required to work part-time to receive food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or agree to accept a job if they're offered one. Stricter rules apply to able-bodied adults 18-49, who are subject to a three-month limit of benefits unless they meet a work or job training requirement of 80 hours per month.

Under the new bill, the tougher requirement would be expanded to apply to all adults on SNAP, with exceptions for of seniors, pregnant women, caretakers of children under the age of 6, or people with disabilities.

"It sets up a system for SNAP recipients where if you are able to work, you should work to get the benefits," said Ryan, R-Wis." And if you can't work, we'll help you get the training you need. We will help you get the skills you need to get an opportunity."

The measure would have greatly expanded funding for state-administered job training programs, but Democrats and outside critics say the funding for the proposed additional job training would require huge new bureaucracies, extensive record-keeping requirements, and that the funding levels would fall far short of what's enough to provide job training to everybody covered by the new job training requirements.

"While I agree that there are changes that need to be made to the SNAP program, this is so clearly not the way to do it," said Rep. Colin Peterson of Minnesota, top Democrat of the Agriculture Committee. "The bill cuts more than $23 billion in SNAP benefits and will result in an estimated 2 million Americans unable to get the help they need."

He said it "turns around and wastes billions ... cut from SNAP benefits to create a massive, untested workforce training bureaucracy."

In addition to food stamps, the measure would renew farm safety-net programs such as subsidies for crop insurance, farm credit and land conservation. Those subsidies for farm country traditionally form the backbone of support for the measure among Republicans, while urban Democrats support food aid for the poor.

On Thursday, supporters of the agriculture safety net easily defeated an attempt to weaken the government's sugar program, which critics say gouges consumers by propping up sugar prices.

The measure mostly tinkered with farm programs, adding provisions aimed at boosting high-speed internet access in rural areas, assist beginning farmers, and ease regulations on producers. But since the measure makes mostly modest adjustments to farm policy, some lawmakers believe that the most likely course of action this year is a temporary extension of the current measure, which expires at the end of September.

In the Senate, the chamber's filibuster rules require a bipartisan process for a bill to pass. There, Agriculture Committee Chairman Pay Roberts, R-Kan., promises a competing bill later this month and he's signaling that its changes to food stamps would be far more modest than the House measure.

The House measure also would have cut funding for land conservation programs long championed by Democrats, prompting criticism from environmental groups. At the same time, it contained a proposal backed by pesticide manufacturers such as the Dow Chemical Company that would streamline the process for approving pesticides by allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to skip reviews required under the Endangered Species Act.

 Goodlatte Statement on the House Farm Bill Vote

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on H.R. 2, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act, or the Farm Bill. Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) released the following statement after voting in support of the Agriculture and Nutrition Act, which failed to receive enough votes to pass the House:
“I am extremely disappointed that the House could not come together today and pass the most important piece of legislation impacting the agricultural community. The Farm Bill sets our country’s farm policy for the next several years and reinforces our country’s commitment to farmers and ranchers from coast to coast, including in Virginia’s Sixth District. It supports rural communities who need increased access to broadband technology, and strengthens the investment in locally-led, voluntary conservation efforts.
“Most upsettingly, this bill was an opportunity to change people’s lives. The Agriculture and Nutrition Act took significant steps to improve the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other anti-hunger programs and ensure those who need help the most are receiving the benefits. The bill makes major investments in workforce training and development to lift able-bodied Americans up and out of poverty and help SNAP recipients find employment to bring financial stability to their lives. I was proud to support this bill as a member of the House Agriculture Committee and today before the full House of Representatives. The Farm Bill must be passed before September 30, and I urge my colleagues in the House to come back to the table and pass a reform-minded bill as quickly as possible. We cannot delay.”