Tough food-stamp requirements, help for CA growers at stake in Congress
WASHINGTON — As Congress returns from its weeks-long election recess, it has a piece of unfinished business that is critical to a nearly
$50 billion California industry and millions of Americans on food stamps.
There’s hope the election results could finally get it over the finish line.
Lawmakers left town without finishing the farm bill, a twice-a-decade piece of legislation that is essential to farming and food access in California and across the country. The bill technically expired at the end of September, but programs are able to function until the end of the year. If it is not renewed by the end of the year, however, they could disappear.
Members of Congress, key staffers and lobbyists working on the bill are optimistic that a deal will get done in the lame-duck session of the outgoing Congress, if House Republicans give up their efforts to toughen qualification requirements for food-stamp recipients.
With Democrats having won enough seats in last week’s midterms to take control of the House next year, that seems increasingly likely.
“I hope it gets passed, and I also have confidence that it will get passed,” said Rep. Jimmy Panetta, a Carmel Valley Democrat and member of the Agriculture Committee that negotiates the bill. Panetta noted that the Senate overwhelmingly passed a version that would not toughen food-stamp requirements.
“If there’s an extension, then guess who has the power in the next Congress?” Panetta said. Given the political realities, he said, he hopes House Republicans “will be willing to come to the table and discuss a compromise.”
Updated every five years, the farm bill determines rules for federally funded agricultural and food assistance programs. It includes farmer subsidies, conservation and rural development, but the biggest part of its $867 billion budget, about 80 percent, consists of nutrition programs, especially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.
The House narrowly passed a version of the bill that would expand work requirements for qualifying for food stamps to able-bodied adults ages 50-59 and to parents of children over age 5. Democrats and advocates for the poor said the changes would push 1.6 million Americans off the program. The bill squeaked through with only Republican votes, opposed by all Democrats, moderate Republicans who thought it went too far, and conservatives who thought it didn’t go far enough.
The Senate passed a version without the changes, 86-11.
Since June, the two chambers have been negotiating over differences in their bills. Besides the food-stamp provisions, lawmakers must reconcile the stickiest differences in the program that governs pricing structures and protections for various cash crops and the section on conservation.
“There’s nothing that’s a big enough deal to keep this from getting done,” said Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. The panel’s chairman, Republican Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, led the charge for the food-stamp changes in the House bill and is one of the lawmakers negotiating with the Senate.
“Why would the Republicans, why would Chairman Conaway, not want to finish this on his watch?” Peterson asked.
Peterson said there was no desire on the part of Democrats “whatsoever” to push the question over to the next Congress, when they’ll be in the majority in the House.
Conaway says he’s “committed” to getting it done.
The election results “don’t change the circumstances in farm country,” Conaway said. “I remain 100 percent committed to completing the farm bill this year.”
If the differences can’t be resolved in the lame-duck session, the bill would technically revert to a 1930s version of the legislation. That would have devastating consequences for farmers and food stamp recipients, but it’s unlikely to happen. Most people tracking the bill believe the House and Senate would simply extend the current version for a year.
A number of smaller programs, however, would expire even with an extension — many of them critical to California, the No. 1 producer of cash crops in the U.S.
There are programs that support specialty crops such as wine. There’s a program that helps farmers build exports, which advocates say is especially critical for California growers whose crops have taken a hit in overseas markets because of President Trump’s trade battles.
“We are certainly feeling the impacts there in certain markets, and export promotion is one of the few things you can do to try to mitigate the impact of tariffs,” said Charles Jefferson, vice president of federal and international public policy for the Wine Institute. Preserving the program “is absolutely important in trying to deal with those challenges,” he said.
There are other programs that promote organic farming, another key industry in California, as well as farmers’ markets and local food programs. And the overall bill is key to a host of issues from research and development, to forestry to pricing. Everyone from California produce farmers to the dairy industry has improvements in the bill they’re waiting on.
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock (Stanislaus County), who is on the conference committee for the bill, is fighting to keep an amendment from Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King off the legislation that would undercut California’s ability to set animal welfare standards for egg production.
“For California producers, especially in the produce industry, the farm bill is a critical tool for research and development needs,” said Dennis Nuxoll, vice president of federal government affairs for the Western Growers trade group. “For the average California resident, the farm bill helps us feed ourselves and make those products safe and affordable to consume, and for those places in California in need, the farm bill is a way to help those people in need. ... The farm bill is really critically important.”