December 18, 2018

So, What Happened with the Farm Bill?

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Last week, the U.S. House and Senate passed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, or the Farm Bill—a massive piece of legislation intended to balance the needs of farmers with rural and urban communities. But it certainly wasn’t an easy process...

The final negotiation was reached after months of contentious debate and disagreement between the two divided chambers—and the approach of the two chambers could not have been more different. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway’s deeply concerning bill failed its first vote on the House floor then only narrowly passed a few weeks later in a strictly partisan vote of 213-211. This bill proposed an ideological and cruel shift in how the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is administered to Americans who are struggling to feed themselves and their families. It would have burdened states with new bureaucracies, and the proposed additional work requirements were so punitive that the bill would have caused millions of Americans to lose their SNAP benefits. A wide array of anti-hunger organizations, food policy advocates, labor unions, veterans groups, scientists and academics, faith communities, and others—including nearly 1,000 Jewish clergy in all 50 states and DC—implored Congress not to impose these harsh work requirements.

Meanwhile, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts worked closely with Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow to craft a bipartisan proposal which took a very different approach to SNAP: one of evidence-based policy. Instead of expanding work requirements in an arbitrary, unrealistic, and irresponsible manner like the House bill, the Senate proposed investing in the 2014 Farm Bill’s pilot programs which are currently assessing best practices to support employment and training for SNAP participants. This bill easily passed the chamber with only 11 Senators opposing (mostly due to issues unrelated to SNAP, like farm subsidies).

The bicameral Conference Committee was then charged with hashing out the vast disparities between the House and Senate proposals. It took several months, but the bipartisan conference report soared quickly through both chambers with broad support, breaking records with votes of 87-13 in the Senate and 369-47 in the House.

What were the politics at play?

With election-year politics in full display, this Farm Bill reauthorization process was fascinating, and at times disheartening. From the beginning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was fixated on legalizing industrial hemp. House Speaker Paul Ryan wanted to use the Farm Bill as a way to advance his broader welfare reform agenda. President Trump employed his signature unhelpful tweets about the need to support farmers and impose work requirements so people don’t game the system. Apparently, Chairman Conaway kept a countdown on his phone for when the Farm Bill would expire, a deadline he missed on September 30 because he was still pushing his partisan and ideological agenda.

In the end, only a handful of legislators opposed the compromise bill, mostly citing discomfort with farm subsidies and other issues unrelated to the linchpin issue of additional work requirements for families on SNAP. Some conservatives, including members of the House Freedom Caucus, probably opposed because of its level of government spending. Only three Democrats in all of Congress opposed the bill—Reps. Blumenauer, Doggett, and Kind—likely because they felt its passage was a missed opportunity to advance more progressive policies.

Once the Farm Bill passed the House, Rep. Collin Peterson, Ranking Member of the House Agriculture Committee, said that he was “proud to be able to turn a partisan bill into a bipartisan bill.” Peterson—along with Chairman Conaway, Chairman Roberts, and Ranking Member Stabenow—allegedly spent hours nailing down the specifics of this bill, promising certain vote thresholds would be delivered if various provisions were included or omitted from the bill. This was an incredible display of old-fashioned bipartisanship, and it worked—as it turns out, most leaders in Congress favored protecting SNAP and focusing changes on program integrity rather than punitive measures. Bipartisan lawmaking is still possible, and we can breathe a momentary sigh of relief. But...

There are rumors that the President is seeking an administrative fix to harshen SNAP’s work requirements—possibly one that could hamper states’ flexibility in requesting relief from SNAP work requirements when they have egregious levels of unemployment in their states. It is possible that some Members who voted for the conference bill only supported it because they knew this was coming next. Or maybe because they knew Chairman Conaway’s proposals were morally bankrupt all along. Either way, MAZON will not let the administration propose harmful changes to SNAP without a fight.

What’s in the bill?

As we explore what’s in this bill, the more important question might be “what’s not in the bill?” In drawing more from the Senate’s bipartisan nutrition provisions, the conference report avoided many of the misguided and controversial policies that would have resulted in loss of benefits for millions of Americans. These provisions—expanding the age bracket for work requirements from 18-49 to 18-59, redefining “dependent” as children age six and below (meaning that children over 6 are not considered dependents!), eliminating the broad-based categorical eligibility state flexibility option, and more—completely ignored the realities of those who struggle to feed themselves and their families.

The Farm Bill package is not perfect, but it is the best bill possible given the current political environment. As Congressman Jim McGovern said, the compromise bill “does no harm. It doesn’t increase hunger” which seemed like a real possibility just a few months ago. And while avoiding the more egregious policies, the bill included some concrete improvements to nutrition policy including:

  • Strengthening the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), which serves 90,000 households with a monthly food box of commodity items selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This is a vital program that MAZON and its partners in the Native Farm Bill Coalition supported because it will help tribes better incorporate traditional foods into their diets, while promoting tribal self-determination and food sovereignty.
  • Improving the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) by streamlining the application process and allowing states to establish up to three-year certification periods. This is important because nearly 700,000 seniors (age 60 and up) receive CSFP food boxes, but they currently have to recertify every 6 or 12 months. Again, this is a program central to MAZON’s work that we hope will help ease the burden on seniors who struggle with food insecurity.
  • Reauthorizing and providing permanent funding for the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program, which provides grants to projects that incentivize SNAP participants to buy fruits and vegetables. The bill renames this program the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program, memorializing the life and accomplishments of our dear friend and partner Gus Schumacher, of blessed memory, who led the field in how to best channel SNAP spending toward fresh, local food.

The bill includes several other interesting policies outside of the nutrition title, including provisions to elevate issues of importance to rural communities and provide funds for new “centers of excellence” at historically black land-grant universities to explore issues like food security. Click here for more information.

What’s Next?

We at MAZON hoped for additional improvements to be included in the Farm Bill, particularly one provision to remove an unintended barrier to SNAP for military families. This is an issue we will continue to prioritize in the 116th Congress, to ensure that military families are not treated like a bargaining chip and that those who make significant sacrifices for our country do not have to struggle to put food on the table.

This year, Congress will also turn to renewing the Older Americans Act, which provides an opportunity to further strengthen services for seniors who face food insecurity. First passed in 1965, this legislation created the U.S. Administration on Aging as well as many important federal programs to provide home delivered meals, in-home support services, transportation, legal services, and elder abuse prevention. However, 5.7 million seniors—approximately 1 in 7 people over age 60—still wonder where their next meal will come from. Among this population is an even more vulnerable and isolated group—LGBT seniors who are 60% more likely to experience food insecurity than their non-LGBT peers. Efforts are already underway to remove anti-discrimination policies on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression for USDA programs like SNAP, CSFP, and the Emergency Food Assistance Program. MAZON is monitoring this issue closely so that we can best advocate on behalf of this vulnerable—yet highly resilient—population.

Of course, we will build on the momentum of this Farm Bill process. We recognize, after over 35 years of leadership and experience in the anti-hunger movement, that addressing hunger is not always a top priority for many elected officials. That is where our hard work begins—ensuring that leaders in Congress, as well as states and localities, understand the reality of millions of Americans who struggle with hunger and respond with thoughtful policy.

Thank you for standing with us throughout this long fight. We look forward to continuing our work with you in the New Year.