The top two leaders of the House Agriculture Committee expressed starkly different positions on H.R. 2, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (the farm bill), slated to be brought to the full House for a vote Friday.
Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minnesota, said in remarks Wednesday, “I will vote no on H.R. 2, and I urge my colleagues to do so as well. H.R. 2 is not a work product that I’m proud of because it’s not one I or my Democratic colleagues had a proper role in producing. More than that though, I’m opposed to H.R. 2 today because it’s simply not good enough for American farmers, consumers or rural advocates.”
Ag Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, conceded the bill has become partisan, but defended the process by which it was created.
“H.R. 2 … is the product of a three-year process,” Conaway said. “This includes 114 hearings, six listening sessions in the field and countless meetings with folks representing Americans served by every facet of the farm bill.
“I acknowledge that the process has become partisan—and that is unfortunate. That said, the ranking member and I did work very closely in crafting the lion’s share of the farm bill—and I greatly appreciate his contributions.”
Conaway said the main issue of contention between Republicans and Democrats on the committee is “an impasse over the nutrition title, primarily over the question of whether work-capable adults should work or get free work training for 20 hours per week to be eligible for SNAP benefits.”
He added that his colleagues say the success of SNAP is in how many people on the program are able to move off and into the workforce.
“I know my friends on the other side of the aisle feel as passionately about this topic as I do,” he said, “although from a different perspective.”
Peterson explained Democrats’ objections, agreeing that changes need to be made in SNAP, but said, “This is so clearly not the way to do it. The bill cuts more than $23 billion in SNAP benefits and will result in an estimated 2 million Americans unable to get the help they need. Within the nutrition title, the bill turns around and wastes billions the Majority cut from SNAP benefits to create a massive, untested workforce training bureaucracy.”
He insisted that this process is not the way to enact welfare reform. “If folks want to do welfare reform, then it should be done as part of a comprehensive review involving all the committees of jurisdiction and the relevant programs. We should not and cannot ask farmers, rural communities and the hungry to bear the cost.”
Conaway said that outside the SNAP debate, committee members find much to agree on. “I want to underscore to this committee just how important passage of the farm bill is right now,” he said. “We are in the midst of a five-year recession in agriculture. Farmers and ranchers have seen net farm income drop by 52 percent. This is among the steepest declines in net farm income since the Great Depression.”
He said the decline is partly due to trade competitors playing by a different set of rules. “China, India, and other world players, have been doubling down on their already high subsidies, tariffs, and other trade barriers. These barriers to trade distort global markets, depressing the prices that our farmers and ranchers receive in the marketplace.”
He said farmers and ranchers have lost half their incomes since the last farm program was enacted. And a deep decline in farm commodity prices was met with a farm safety net that provided less security than before.
“Many farmers and ranchers across the country are just one bad year away from being forced out of business,” Conaway said. “I am not always certain that everyone in Washington fully appreciates just how much is at stake here—and just how precarious the situation is right now in farm country.
“The 2014 Farm Bill pledged $23 billion in taxpayer savings. However, the latest CBO budget baseline says that savings will exceed $112 billion, nearly 5 times what was pledged. These savings are partially the result of reforms in agriculture that build on previous market-oriented reforms that began in 1996.”
Peterson finds other points of contention in the farm bill, including a failure to “improve the farm safety net programs. It fails to make needed increases to reference prices under the PLC program to address the 52 percent drop in national farm income,” he 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.”
He also questions cuts in conservation titles, including, “reducing the federal funding for our voluntary conservation programs by almost $800 million dollars.”
Other contentious issues include lack of funding for scholarships at 1890 land grant colleges, underfunding beginning farmer and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and failure to reach “energy independence goals… and hobbles renewable energy and energy efficiency efforts in rural communities by eliminating funding for the Rural Energy for America Program.”
Both Conaway and Peterson express hope that they can find common ground to get a bill passed this week.
Peterson says a one-party bill breaks up a bi-partisan coalition that has existed for decades. He added that the “one-sided nature of this process, which I must call out, does not bode well for farm and food legislation to come. No party can do this alone. It’s too big a job.
“As Ranking Member on the House Agriculture Committee, I want to and am willing to come back to the table, but only when the Majority can sit down and figure this out together.”
Conaway said he welcomes a vigorous debate on the merits of the bill.
“A cottage industry has grown up in Washington that is bent around the axle on undoing farm policy,” he said. “Many of these groups—from both ends of the political spectrum—are well-heeled, and they spend an inordinate amount of time and resources on this area of policy that is working very well. I support a full-throated debate over the farm bill, but I also want everyone to be aware of what is at stake here.”