By Chuck Raasch
The U.S. House of Representatives plans to vote Friday on a new, five-year farm bill that will cost almost $900 billion. It sits on a familiar divide, with most Republicans voting for it and virtually all Democrats voting against it, and prospects in the Senate murky.
The massive bill, which covers everything from crop insurance to expanding rural broadband service, has gotten mired in debates over welfare, deficits and the proper role of government in food production. Republican leaders were working Thursday to corral the 218 votes necessary to pass the House and move to the Senate.
Democrats oppose provisions that would require people from ages 18-59 who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) payments to either work or receive job training. Fiscal hawks in the Republican majority complain the bill is too costly, and will try to amend it Friday to do everything from cut government assistance to farmers for crop insurance, to reining in income support for sugar famers.
The debate over SNAP benefits has encroached into election year politics, with Democrats setting the stage for ads attacking Republicans as callous toward the poor, and Republicans preparing to attack Democrats as purveyors of an expanding welfare state.
Three regional House members -- Reps. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, Ill., Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, Ill., and Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville -- serve on the House Agriculture Committee that has spent months negotiating the mammoth package. It came out of committee with Democrats not on board.
"It is budget neutral which I think is important for fiscal responsibility for those on the (political) right who want to make sure that we live within our means," Hartzler said. "It makes good investments of those dollars to help provide individualized training for individuals that are currently on food assistance and help them get .... one of those 6 million jobs that are available in this country," Hartzler said.
Davis said Republicans are trying to reverse a trend where there are 9 million more people receiving SNAP benefits today, with 3.9 percent unemployment, than there were n 2009, when unemployment approached 10 percent
"This is our chance to do the next generation of welfare reform," he said
Department of Agriculture data show that about 42.2 million Americans received SNAP assistance in 2017. That's down from a record 47.6 million in 2013, but is 26 percent higher than the 33.5 million who received food stamps in 2009.
"I don't get it," Bost said of Democratic opposition to the SNAP jobb-and-training requirements. "This polls about 70 percent (favorable) in my district."
His district includes Metro East, where unemployment in pockets is higher than in more rural areas of his constituency. Democrats say the GOP requirements that SNAP recipients get jobs or trained for them will hurt people that need the assistance the most. Democrats point out that the GOP bill would cut SNAP assistance by $23 billion over five years, hurting the most vulnerable.
The bill "fails our nation's hungry," Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn,, said as House floor debate began on the bill. "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."
He cited estimates that 2 million people could be denied benefits under the GOP plan, and that they would be subject to "a massive, untested workforce training bureaucracy."
But Bost said the bill allows states to apply for waivers in high-unemployment counties. And Davis cited an example where a jobless person in his district could receive both SNAP assistance and government training help to attend an eight-week community college course to learn to become a truck driver, and start at a $70,000-a-year job driving trucks for food distributors.
He said Democrats made an election-year decision to paint any farm bill from the Republican majority as cruel to the poor, and they offered few amendments when it was being crafted in committee.
"You can't complain about the legislative process not going your way if you don't participate," he said.
But Democrats are not the only opponents. Some Republican members of the House Freedom Caucus could vote against the bill because they say it costs too much and does too much to prop up large farmers.
The legislation could be more accurately titled the rural America assistance act. It puts $600 million into expanding broadband services in rural areas, contains scholarships for young people going into agriculture, provides assistance to historically black colleges to attract more food-industry scientists and producers, and maintains the broad and intricate infrastructure of price supports and crop insurance that has been put together in five-year bills over decades.
The bill also increases government-funded conservation reserve programs by 29 million acres. It also includes trade promotion initiatives to boost the $140 billion in food annual food exports by American farmers.
Some Democrats say the income support isn't robust enough for farmers who have seen precipitous drops on the price of corn, soybeans and other commodities over the past five years. And they say it doesn't do enough for export promotion to offset President Donald Trump's escalating trade war with China, which has depressed the soybean and other commodity markets.
"The bill does not improve the farm safety net programs farmers need to manage a troubled farm economy," Peterson said. "It neglects repeated requests to increase funding for trade promotion to help strengthen overseas markets in response to the administration's actions on trade and renewable fuels."
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