By Adam Goldstein
WASHINGTON — Three of the four top agricultural leaders in Congress are emphasizing writing a farm bill that meets the needs of all rural Americans, but they diverge sharply over food assistance work requirements pushed by U.S. House Republicans as well as uses of Inflation Reduction Act conservation funds.
Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Republican Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, and Republican Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson of Pennsylvania expressed a shared commitment to getting the bill done on time with “ground-up” input from farmers and ranchers while speaking this week at the North American Agricultural Journalists conference.
“When you look and see what’s going on in rural America, agriculture is really all that’s left,” said Boozman, the ranking member on the Senate Committee for Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. “It’s a safety net for our farmers, but it’s also a safety net for rural America.”
Still, the committee leaders split along party lines in discussing the possibility of expanded work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. They also disagreed over a Senate Agriculture GOP proposal to redirect funding for climate initiatives in the Inflation Reduction Act into the farm bill’s baseline budget.
The farm bill is a multiyear omnibus law which authorizes an array of agricultural and food programs, including federal crop insurance, food stamp benefits, and farm resource conservation.
The farm bill is renewed close to every five years, and includes mandatory spending that must be in line with previous farm bills.
The 2018 farm bill expires at the end of September 2023, was projected to cost $867 billion over 10 years when enacted, and has cost roughly $428 billion over the past five years. Baseline spending for the coming farm bill is currently projected at $1.5 trillion over the next 10 fiscal years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
SNAP work requirements
Boozman and Thompson, the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, spoke in favor of changes to the work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program proposed by California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s debt limit and spending cuts bill.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is the predominant federal nutrition safety net for low-income Americans. The program, formerly known as food stamps, cost $233 billion overall in 2021 and 2022 while serving more than 41 million people nationwide, according to USDA.
McCarthy’s bill, if passed, would require able-bodied adults without dependents ages 18 through 55 to work or participate in a work training or education program for at least 20 hours per week to receive continuous SNAP support, up from the current range of ages 18 to 49.
Thompson said he was happy McCarthy’s team consulted him when designing the work requirements policy in the debt limit bill, which would save the country a “few billion dollars.”
Thompson also applauded McCarthy’s proposal to eliminate “hundreds of thousands” of accrued nutrition waivers in states, which he said keeps individuals out of the full benefits of the nutrition title like career training and education.
“Those have got to go,” Thompson said. “What these folks really need, in addition to getting the nutrition support — which I’m certainly supportive of — they need a shot at the American dream, which is getting a new job or a better job.”
Boozman also advocated for expanded SNAP work requirements, calling them an “integral part” of debt ceiling talks in the House. However, he said enforcing the work requirement in states is just as big of an issue as passing the legislation.
“I think you can make it more efficient,” Boozman said. “Right now, the farm bill is $1.2 trillion of nutrition, $300 billion of farm programs. So there is a finite amount of money that we have to work with.”
Still, the Republican leaders did express diverging views on SNAP work requirements in future farm bill negotiations if the debt limit legislation stalls, as expected. The Senate is unlikely to take up the House legislation.
Boozman said that if McCarthy fails to get the debt limit bill with adjusted work requirements out of the House, “it would be hard to get an agreement in the future.”
In contrast, Thompson said he was open to addressing work requirements in the House version of the farm bill if McCarthy’s plan does not move forward.
“My preference would have been to just work on this in the farm bill,” he said. “I was pleased to work with leadership to provide very reasonable suggestions. I wouldn’t have offered that there if originally I wasn’t hoping to do something like that.”
Stabenow, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that she did not believe any debt limit bill with SNAP work requirements attached would be supported either by the Senate or the White House, “with the threat of default for our country.”
She added that the majority of SNAP assistance is directed to seniors, people with disabilities, families who have children or veterans.
“Taking $6 a day away from a mom and her kids, or a senior citizen, or a person with disabilities, or a veteran, is not a winning strategy for Republicans,” she said. “It’s just mean.”
Climate and conservation
The Republican agricultural committee leaders also spoke to the need to loosen climate-based eligibility provisions in USDA programs that might limit risk management access for conventional farmers.
“Certainly we’re not going to try to tie our safety nets — our risk management tools, that our farmers desperately need around — to being climate-friendly,” Boozman said.
Boozman also expressed interest in a proposal from his staff that would reallocate $37 billion in funds allocated to USDA’s conservation programs from the Inflation Reduction Act to the farm bill’s baseline.
He added that his team is seeking increased clarity on the spending criteria for the funds after an April 20 Senate Agriculture Committee conservation hearing, especially regarding carbon capture.
Thompson suggested the House Agriculture Committee could request the House Appropriations Committee reappropriate Inflation Reduction Act funds to the farm bill baseline, given the House’s jurisdiction over federal spending granted in Article I of the Constitution.
He added that additional USDA funding has been authorized and allocated through Congress without being spent, and he has not before seen a farm bill “when there’s been that many pots of money sitting around idle.”
Stabenow, in contrast, said that the Inflation Reduction Act funds should not be reappropriated, given the original intent for the money to alleviate oversubscribed conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which helps farmers, ranchers and forest landowners integrate conservation practices on their working lands.
“These were not new programs,” Stabenow said. “So that is not something that I view as a pool to just throw into the farm bill. This is specific money augmenting the things that our farmers want.”
Reference price adjustments
Boozman reiterated that he would not vote on a farm bill that would not increase reference prices, or estimated average market prices tied to insurance reimbursement rates, for the farm bill’s commodity risk management programs like the Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage programs. He said that reference prices had not been updated since 2012.
Stabenow said that while updated reference prices are a part of farm negotiations, and are of considerable interest to the middle of the country, farmers elsewhere may have different priorities for “what they most need.”
Thompson said that the increase for reference prices is important, “but it also is going to come with a dollar amount, too.”
The committee leaders largely expressed the need for patience as lawmakers craft their respective bills.
“We certainly are moving,” said Stabenow. “This is going to take several months yet. So I think when you say on time, it’s all relative. We’re going to do this as quickly and as responsibly as we can.”