By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- After hours of criticism by Democrats on changes to food programs, the House Agriculture Committee passed a farm bill out of committee Wednesday on a strictly partisan 26-20 vote as every Republican voted for the bill and every Democrat opposed it.
Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, told reporters afterward he hopes the bill can get to a full House vote during the first week of May. Conaway said in opening remarks he was determined to get the bill done on time, as the current farm bill expires Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.
"My view on this has not changed," Conaway said. "The current farm bill is set to expire at the end of the year, so we have a duty to act."
The words "farm bill" were stated more times than can be counted, but little time was taken by the committee on programs and policies directly related to farmers. Most of the debate and complaints from Democrats focused on proposed changes to job training and eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Countering Conaway, Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., called the legislation "a flawed bill that is the result of a bad and nontransparent process." Peterson said Republicans are on an "ideological crusade" regarding SNAP changes that would turn urban lawmakers against farm programs on the House floor.
"Mr. Chairman, what's going on here is we are turning friends into enemies," Peterson said.
SNAP is used by 42.2 million people and nutrition programs overall would take up 77% of the projected $867 billion in farm-bill costs over the next 10 years. SNAP also was the driver for the lion's share of $100 billion in projected savings over the current farm bill.
Republicans want people defined as able-bodied adults without dependents to be required to perform 20 hours of work or job training weekly to get SNAP benefits. The bill also changes income eligibility standards by states, limiting income eligibility nationally for SNAP benefits to people who earn 130% of the federal poverty line or less, or about $26,000 a year for a three-person household. Currently, some states go as high as 200%.
Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., chairman of the nutrition subcommittee, said changes in nutrition programs aren't about saving money, but getting good policy.
"We want to look at good policy to help our neighbors in need who find themselves in a tough circumstance," Thompson said. He added, "No one is kicking them off of SNAP because of mandatory work requirements," though if people do not participate in job training or get a job, then they do not participate in SNAP.
Democrats said roughly 1.6 million people would end up removed from SNAP, while states would be required to greatly expand job-training programs that would end up underfunded. Democrats said the cuts were attacks on poor people.
"We sometimes look at poor people as if they are not taxpayers," said Rep Al Lawson, D-Fla. "They pay a higher cost of food than most of us here."
Lawson noted the drive on job training goes against the mission of the committee. "I ask you to really look at the poor, and this committee should be more concerned about feeding America than anything else," he said.
The bill does what most farm and commodity groups wanted over the past two years of hearings and forums by protecting crop insurance from cuts. The bill doesn't change eligibility for premium subsidies or place any restrictions on revenue policies.
With trade being an emphasis right now, farm groups had called for doubling funding for the Market Access Program and the Foreign Market Development program -- known as MAP and FMD. The bill doesn't add funding, but does restore full funding for the programs, which are considered key tools to help sell U.S. agricultural products overseas.
The markup and amendments did not change the commodity programs from the initial language released last week. Among the details in the commodity programs are changes to the Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) that would use crop insurance data to calculate yields. The House also would eliminate the individual farm coverage under ARC and stick solely with the county program.
The bill maintains the same reference prices for nearly every commodity in the Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program. There was talk by Peterson to increase reference prices up to 10%, but no amendment was offered to make that change.
However, Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee wrote President Donald Trump on Tuesday, asking him not to create ad-hoc assistance programs for farmers affected by trade disputes, but instead work for long-term programs and safety nets such as shoring up commodity programs. The letter noted that, despite income declines among farmers, the draft farm bill "provides no new policy to address these challenges. This presents you with an opportunity to mitigate the damages already inflicted on American farmers, and to protect them from future harm."
Peterson said he was more concerned about commodity prices since the trade disputes fired up between the U.S. and China. He pointed to the 178.6% tariff slapped on sorghum this week to make his point. Peterson said if the Trump administration has more money for safety-net payments for farmers, then more funding should just go to boost the commodity programs.
"The only reason some of my producers have survived the last three years of low prices is because extraordinary yields have saved us," Peterson said.
The House bill would eliminate new signups under USDA's largest conservation program, the Conservation Stewardship Program. The contracts for the current 72 million acres in CSP would continue until they expire, but no new enrollment would be allowed. Instead, the bill would invest more in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
The Conservation Reserve Program would increase by 5 million acres to 29 million acres, but would reduce rental rates to 80% of the current average county rental rate for ground. USDA would be required to more frequently update rental rates under CRP as well.
AMENDMENTS TO WATCH
Democrats offered no amendments to the bill. Two amendments had some extended debate. One was by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who has pushed for nearly eight years for his "Protect Interstate Commerce Act," which is meant to target states that require agricultural standards beyond federal law.
Specifically, King criticized California's law that requires eggs imported into the state to meet the same cage-space requirements and standards California imposes on eggs produced in the state. King said the Founding Fathers expected the states to have a free-trade zone amongst each other that is blocked by such laws.
"Restore free trade between the states and pre-empt some really bad things coming down the pike," he said.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., former chairman of the committee and now Judiciary Committee chairman, agreed with King that state laws could restrict agriculture and food shipments in several ways. "The impact of leaving this unchecked is very devastating to our economy," Goodlatte said.
King's amendment was again added to the bill in a voice vote after an attempt by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., to undercut King's amendment failed.
Denham and King then had another back-and-forth over Denham's amendment to make it a felony to knowingly slaughter a dog or cat for human consumption, or import a dog or cat for human consumption.
"Just one question after seeing this thing passed around: Are people really eating dogs?" Lawson asked, leading to laughter in the committee room.
Denham said that, yes, indeed, people are eating dogs. King and others said that could be a cultural issue where they come from and questioned whether there should be a felony law against it. Still, Denham's provision was added to the bill on a voice vote.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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