Eight months after the House Agriculture Committee initially proposed its version of the farm bill, both chambers of Congress have finally reached a compromise, removing changes that would have hurt needy Americans. Politico reported on Tuesday that congressional leaders hope to have the bill on President Trump’s desk by the end of the week.
The bill, which is renewed every five years, funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), regulates forestry policy, sets farm subsidies, and funds conservation programs. This year, the bill faced a troubled path. The House and Senate have taken an unusually long time to come up with a reconciliation bill (the previous farm bill expired in October), thanks largely to Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee. Last spring, led by committee chairman Michael Conaway of Texas, Republicans rammed through a version of the bill that would, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops politely put it at the time, “negatively impact low-income and working families.”
The House’s original bill, introduced in April, contained about $9 billion in cuts to SNAP, and would have required able-bodied beneficiaries between the ages of 18 and 59 to prove they were working at least 20 hours per week or were enrolled in school. SNAP beneficiaries are already required to work or look for work, though specific requirements vary from state to state. Conaway’s version would have tightened existing work requirements across the board, a move his office justified at the time as a “springboard out of poverty to a good-paying job.” If beneficiaries couldn’t prove they were at least looking for work, they’d lose benefits.
The bill also imposed stringent penalties on low-income families who make paperwork errors when applying for benefits. As I previously reported for The New Republic, the first error would have cost a household a full year of SNAP benefits. A second error would have cost them 36 months — that’s three years without food assistance. Not only did House Republicans appear ready to punish the poor for being out of work, they were also prepared to punish them for simple human error. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill would have cut around 1.5 million people off from SNAP.
The reconciliation bill omits the work requirements, which might be a problem for President Trump and for some House Republicans. Trump had adamantly supported work requirements in the farm bill, as did USDA secretary Sonny Perdue. The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that Representative Mark Walker, a Republican from North Carolina, was still deciding whether to support the bill himself, but predicted that about half of House Republicans will back it. House Democrats, meanwhile, appear ready to back the revised version, which may be enough to get the bill through the House. Since the Senate’s version of the farm bill always omitted work requirements and passed with bipartisan support, it’s likely that the reconciliation bill will pass without significant resistance there.
A burgeoning farm bankruptcy crisis — spurred, in part, by Trump’s tariff agenda — may encourage the president to sign the bill, which will cost $867 billion dollars over five years. So might another provision in the bill, which legalizes the production of industrial hemp. As CNBC reported on December 7, the hemp industry could top $20 billion by 2020; relaxing laws on industrial hemp production could help revitalize struggling farms and support rural development.