U.S. Senate farm bill disappoints welfare reform advocates

July 9, 2018

The passage of the Senate farm bill proved a bitter harvest for advocates of major changes to the federal food stamps program, but some analysts see some fertile ground ahead in House-Senate negotiations on a compromise bill.

Senators approved a farm bill on a bipartisan vote of 86 to 11 that did not include expansion of work requirements and other reforms of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In contrast, the House previously passed a bill containing tougher work requirements for SNAP recipients – a welfare reform supported by a majority of Republican Congress members.

“I think the Senate was more cautious about how much reform they wanted to put into their bill,” Tarren Bragdon, president and CEO of the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), told Watchdog.org. FGA supports work requirements for those receiving nutritional aid as a way to get millions of Americans off of welfare dependency.

The House bill expands the number of food assistance beneficiaries who would be subject to a 20-hour-per-week work requirement or to be enrolled in a job-training program. It also would limit states’ ability to get federal waivers from work requirements.

The farm bill debate was always about hashing out differences between the House and the Senate, according to Bragdon, and now it will be up to negotiators to come up with a compromise that President Donald Trump will sign.

“Somebody has to give, and I think you’ll see everybody giving,” he said. “… I think the final bill will have expanded work requirements. The question is to how many and for how much.”

The House bill extends work requirements to cover many parents as well as childless adults. It also allows the requirements to be imposed on recipients up to age 59, according to Bragdon.

“More than 60 percent of able-bodied adults on food stamps are not working today,” he said, adding that there are now about 7 million open jobs across the country that need to be filled as the economy continues to expand.

Food stamp reform is a key part of the congressional farm bill, Bragdon said, since food stamps make up about 80 percent of spending earmarked in the bill. Congress has until Sept. 30 to come up with a compromise before the current farm bill expires, and negotiators are on track to get the job done, he said.

Several senators had been pushing to include major reforms in the Senate bill last week. Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, was looking into drawing up amendments on the welfare reforms or reforming agricultural commodity promotional programs, according to his spokesman, Conn Carroll. Ultimately, however, no major amendments to the bill passed.

The chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas, expressed optimism when senators approved the farm bill.

“We are one step closer to providing farmers and ranchers a farm bill with the certainty and predictability they deserve,” Roberts said in a prepared statement.

But Daren Bakst, senior research fellow on agricultural policy with the Heritage Foundation, said whatever compromise comes out of Congress will likely not be a sensible public policy serving the interests of American taxpayers.

“The Senate Agriculture Committee and the House Committee focused on serving agricultural special interests,” Bakst told Watchdog.org. And the House bill does nothing to stop affluent agricultural interests from receiving generous subsidies from taxpayers, he said.

“It’s not likely to be a good bill,” Bakst said just prior to the final Senate vote on the farm bill. “… It fails on both the farm subsidies and food stamps.”

A small handful of commodities – including, corn, wheat, rice, soy beans and peanuts – receive tons of subsidies, he said. In addition, taxpayers pay 62 percent of premiums for farmers’ crop insurance, according to Bakst.

“That’s just an absurd amount,” he said.

The big fight during conference committee discussions on a final farm will be on the food stamp side, Bakst said.

“I don’t see how that gets reconciled,” he said. “… And taxpayers and consumers will lose on the subsidies side.”

Other groups, however, contend the Senate bill is somewhat better on the subsidies debate than the House version. Unlike the House bill, the Senate legislation provides some means testing to keep billionaires from receiving farm subsidies, according to the Washington-based Environmental Working Group.

Congress could ultimately pass legislation to extend the current farm bill and begin the process anew to ensure significant reforms are included in a final bill, Bakst said.

“It’s not the end of the world if they don’t pass a farm bill this year,” he said. “…They need to go back to work and do it the right way.”