Food stamp revamp sparks GOP fight over farm bill

Food stamp revamp sparks GOP fight over farm bill
© Greg Nash

A Republican-led effort to overhaul the federal food stamps program in this year’s farm bill has sparked a bitter fight in the House, which could derail the measure’s chances for passage. 

The agricultural legislation includes language that would tighten the work requirements for millions of food stamp recipients and shift more federal funding toward job training — a key priority for retiring Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAnti-Defamation League calls on House leaders to censure Steve King over white supremacy comments Former Ryan fundraisers launch firm Romney writes new chapter in his like-hate relationship with Trump MORE (R-Wis.).

While the provision has helped woo conservatives who would normally oppose the farm bill, the stricter eligibility requirements have repelled moderate Republicans and nearly all Democrats.

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“I have concerns regarding SNAP [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program],” said Rep. Leonard LanceLeonard LanceIncoming Dem lawmaker: Trump 'sympathizes' with leaders 'accused of moral transgressions' On The Money: Why the tax law failed to save the GOP majority | Grassley opts for Finance gavel, setting Graham up for Judiciary | Trump says China eager for trade deal | Facebook reeling after damning NYT report Tax law failed to save GOP majority MORE (R-N.J.), who is facing a tough reelection bid. “Those from New Jersey who have come into my office have said they would be unable to fulfill the requirements.”


A few hard-line conservatives oppose the proposal because it doesn’t actually cut funding from SNAP, also known as food stamps, which provides food assistance to low-income individuals and families.

“It’s irrational we would spend the same amount of money [on SNAP] with 4 percent unemployment as we spent on 10 percent unemployment,” said Rep. Warren DavidsonWarren Earl DavidsonWashington must defend American crypto innovation, not crush it GOP lawmaker unveils bill soliciting private contributions to pay for border wall Fractious GOP vows to unify in House minority MORE (R-Ohio), a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus. “In reality, there is no cut to the spending. It’s really redefining what the eligibility requirements are.”

Republican leaders, who will start formally whipping the legislation on Wednesday, have been working to build support for the plan over the past few weeks, including through listening sessions.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueFederal workers sue Trump administration over shutdown, allege work without pay violates 13th Amendment USDA extends deadline for farmers hurt by tariffs to seek aid Food stamp benefits will continue in February despite shutdown: USDA MORE rallied support for the farm bill during a GOP whip team meeting on Monday, while House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayGOP takes victory lap around Pelosi after passing border wall bill House Intel votes to release Roger Stone transcript to Mueller Clear Water Rule means relief for farmers, ranchers MORE (R-Texas) highlighted the SNAP reforms during an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) event on Tuesday.

“We’ve got to sell folks on this issue,” Conaway told reporters. “AEI is one of the most thoughtful think tanks.”

Conaway also said he is still working to sell the legislation to some of his own colleagues.

“I’m telling folks there are certain issues that we cannot let kill the entire bill,” he said.

The legislation authorizes a variety of federal food and agriculture programs, but the majority of the funding goes toward SNAP.

Under this year’s bill, all able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 59 have to be working or enrolled in a training program for at least 20 hours per week in order to qualify for food stamps. People who are elderly, disabled or pregnant would be exempt from the requirements.

The SNAP revamp is considered a legacy item for Ryan, who has sought to enact welfare reform as part of his “Better Way” agenda.

But the GOP conference is fiercely divided over the food stamp changes.

“There’s some openness to supporting it. But some people are going to be for it, some people are going to be against it,” said Rep. Morgan GriffithHoward (Morgan) Morgan GriffithVirginia reps urge Trump to declare federal emergency ahead of Hurricane Florence Conservatives blame McCarthy for Twitter getting before favorable committee Bipartisan leaders of House panel press drug companies on opioid crisis MORE (R-Va.), who said he is still undecided on the bill.

Some conservatives say they support trimming the social safety net, which they say will help lift people out of poverty and get welfare recipients back on their feet.

“We’re undecided at this point, but leaning in the right direction for them,” said Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerCorker: Breakthrough reached in shutdown stalemate Senate in last-minute talks to find deal to avert shutdown  GOP takes victory lap around Pelosi after passing border wall bill MORE (R-N.C.), head of the conservative Republican Study Committee.

But other conservatives question whether the food stamp changes go far enough. They want to see funding for the program significantly scaled back.

“I like that it’s actually doing something on SNAP. But it seems to me, if we’re going to do something, we should be really aggressive on it,” said Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanGOP lawmakers rip Dems for calling Cohen to testify Jordan renews call for Rosenstein to testify Republicans question progress on probe of DOJ, FBI actions during 2016 MORE (R-Ohio), a Freedom Caucus leader. “I’ve got to see if this is good enough.”

The farm bill wouldn’t cut funding from SNAP, but it would shift money toward work training programs.

“I’m just wondering how many new federal workforce development programs we need,” Jordan said.

A number of conservative groups have also come out against the farm bill, including FreedomWorks, Club for Growth and Heritage Action.

“The House Agriculture Committee farm bill, which is expected to be debated on the House floor in May, is unacceptable,” Heritage wrote to Congress. “It not only fails to make reforms to farm subsidies, but actually makes the subsidies even worse.”

The tougher eligibility requirements are a non-starter for Democrats, who walked away from the normally bipartisan farm bill process when Republicans decided to include the SNAP revamp. They say the proposal is unnecessarily cruel and would prevent 1 million people from receiving food stamps.

Rep. Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerThis week: No signs of urgency as shutdown enters fourth week Overnight Energy: House votes to reopen Interior, EPA | Dems question EPA over Wheeler confirmation prep | Virginia Dem backs Green New Deal House votes to reopen Interior, EPA as shutdown fight wages on MORE (D-Md.), the House minority whip, predicted that the food stamp changes would derail the entire farm bill’s chances for passage. And even if it passes the House, it stands little chance in the Senate.

“The farm bill is another example of the division and dysfunction in the Republican Party. ... They eschew compromise and they continue to pander to the hard-line elements of their caucus,” Hoyer told reporters Tuesday. “It is my understanding they don’t have the votes on their side of the aisle.”

“They’re deeply divided, mainly because they have a large number of people who want to make the nutrition title of the farm bill even worse, cut more people off [from] having availability of nutritional services,” he added.

Conservatives have other fundamental issues with the bill, such as concerns with the crop insurance and commodity programs included in the measure.

But GOP leaders may give lawmakers the opportunity to vote on some amendments, which could help win over more conservative support.

“The idea that it would be a structured rule, that we would be able to offer amendments, is more likely to get support — even if some of them don’t pass,” Davidson said.

“There’s a number of people wanting amendments,” said Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsHouse Freedom Caucus calls for Congress to work on shutdown through break Dreamers-for-wall trade going nowhere in House Trump on declaring national emergency: 'Not going to do it so fast' MORE (R-N.C.). “My understanding is that [leadership] would, but I don’t know that.”

Conaway recommended that leadership allow a structured rule, but said lawmakers shouldn’t be allowed to offer amendments if they aren’t willing to support the final bill.

“If you’re a no already on the bill no matter what, then why would you get a poison pill amendment added to make it worse for everybody else?” Conaway said.