Farm bill sails through Senate. Now it’s up to wavering House Republicans

In this July 9, 2009 file photo three combines harvest the winter wheat on the Cooksey farm near Roggen, Colo.
In this July 9, 2009 file photo three combines harvest the winter wheat on the Cooksey farm near Roggen, Colo. File photo

Rural Republicans in the U.S. House now face a stark political choice: Either saying no to a bill farmers in their districts desperately need or saying yes and surrendering in their battle to crack down on the federal food stamp program.

The 807-page farm bill sailed to passage in the Senate by a bipartisan vote of 87 to 13 less than a day after its text had been released to the public. All 13 no votes were Republicans.

The bill now heads to the House, where some Republicans are still bristling over the bill’s concessions.

The measure will reauthorize the nation’s nearly $900 billion food and agriculture programs for the next five years.

It will ensure farmers can rely on crop insurance to protect against financial risk and that low-income Americans have access to food aid without new restrictions on eligibility or cuts to benefits.

“We’ve been trying to point out this is no time for a revolutionary farm bill,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, the lead Senate negotiator. “It’s time to get a bill done so our farmers have predictability and certainty during a very difficult time.”

House Republicans fought for months to crack down on what they saw as abuse of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

Under current law, able-bodied adults who do not have dependent children and are under the age of 50 must work for 20 hours a week or participate in job training to receive food aid under the program.

The original House Republican proposal expanded the work requirements to include people up to age 59 and parents of children over the age of 6. It also included proposals that would have made it harder for states to give exceptions to those rules.

“With unemployment at a 50-year low and more Americans on food stamps than the entire population of Canada, able-bodied adults should have to work to receive taxpayer dollars,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican who co-founded the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

But House Republicans lost negotiating power when they lost the House to Democrats in November, and the compromise bill is expected to pick up Democratic votes in the House.

Rep. Ron Estes, R-Kansas, was disappointed by the consessions in the final bill, but voting against the farm bill isn’t an option for the Wichita Republican whose district includes farm-heavy counties in southern Kansas.

“There really were so many good provisions in our House version. I wish the Senate would have agreed to more of them,” Estes said minutes after the Senate passed the compromise bill.

Republicans are now counting on President Donald Trump’s administration to use its power to help tighten the rules on food assistance after it failed to do it at the legislative level.

California has been a particularly big target for Republican ire because of what critics say are the state’s generous exemptions from the work standards.

States have the power to waive the work requirements to qualify for food aid in areas with high unemployment. Currently 36 states and territories, including California, are taking advantage of that ability.

Republicans have criticized California for not being tougher with work requirements on food aid in areas with low unemployment rates. GOP critics say state officials are using language in current law that allows state applications to combine contiguous areas.

That means a county with low unemployment can be combined with a nearby county with high unemployment so they both qualify to excuse people from the work requirements. Of California’s 58 counties, 55 were approved to grant work requirement exclusions to food aid recipients in the last application period.

The only change to the process is that applying for the exclusions will now require the support of the state’s governor. Currently, a state’s agency submits the application and doesn’t have to notify the governor beforehand.

It’s a change that Republicans are hoping will put political pressure on governors and deter states from the seeking the waivers.

But the requirement for gubernatorial okays could be a largely symbolic change since the heads of state agencies applying for the waivers are usually appointed by the governor.

It’s unlikely to be an issue in California, whose governor has been a Democrat since 2011.

There’s another wrinkle, though: It’ll be up to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to determine what exactly “support of the governor” means when it drafts regulations based on the bill. The bill does not mandate any new approval process.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has indicated that he wants to use his regulatory authority to limit the use of waivers, contending in February that too many states are “are abdicating their responsibility to move (SNAP) participants to self-sufficiency.”

The bill is silent on Perdue’s power to use his authority to tighten the requirements, but House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, said in a statement the bill “ensures Secretary Perdue can continue his work on this critical issue.”

Roberts confirmed Tuesday that lawmakers expect Perdue to issue a rule in the near future that will tighten the rules on states, particularly those such as California that combine multiple counties when they seek exclusions from the work requirements.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, lead Democrat on farm bill negotiations, said she would oppose a rule proposed by Perdue to limit SNAP eligibility and would be looking thoroughly into whether Perdue could act unilaterally.

A spokesman for Democratic Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom did not return several requests seeking comment on whether he supported allowing counties to provide work requirement exceptions to those seeking food aid. But he was lieutenant governor to Gov. Jerry Brown during the last application period, when the vast majority of the state was approved.

In California’s Central Valley, where unemployment for decades has been consistently more than double the national unemployment rate, the looser requirements are sorely needed.

Work requirements are difficult to fulfill if there are already signs that work is scarce, and the unemployment rates in areas of the Valley are typically some of the highest in the country.

In states that don’t use the exceptions, such as Kansas, SNAP recipients are limited to three months on the program during a three-year period if they fail to work 20 hours a week or participate in a job-training program.

“The time limit is a harsh policy that punishes people who are willing to work but can’t find a job,” said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the liberal-leaning Center on Budget Policies and Priorities.

Kansas will have a Democratic governor in January, but even if she wants to support allowing more people to not meet work requirement in order to receive SNAP, Gov.-elect Laura Kelly won’t have that option. The state enacted a law in 2015 that forbids its stage agriculture department from seeking exemptions.

Kelly wants to roll back the law, but she’ll face an uphill battle against Republican supermajorities in the state legislature.

Kristina Rasmussen, vice president of federal affairs at conservative Foundation for Government Accountability, said the change in the farm bill means governors could face political consequences if their states waive the work requirements for able-bodied adults without children.

“It does require more political skin in the game, so this is a positive step forward,” she said.

This includes Republican-led states, such as Kentucky and Idaho, which have obtained approval for the current fiscal year to forgo the work requirements for areas with high unemployment.

The bill also includes provisions that will lead to increased data collection on the program, prevent people from receiving food assistance from multiple federal programs or in several states and shorten the time people can store up money on their electronic benefits cards.

All of these measures will be used by GOP leaders as selling points to House conservatives who are upset the bill does not include more robust changes to SNAP.

The farm bill also includes a provision that will legalize the growing of hemp.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, hailed it on the Senate floor, noting that he had signed the conference report with his “hemp pen” -- a corn-based polymer filled with hemp fiber from his home state of Kentucky.

He noted that Kentucky was once the national leader in growing industrial hemp, but that a federal ban has put the state and others out of business.

“The farmers, processors, and manufacturers in my state and across this country are ready for the hemp comeback,” he said.

Lesley Clark of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.
Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.