Conaway facing uphill battle on farm bill as conservatives bash it
By John Lauinger May 7, 2018
The hard-line conservative faction of just under three dozen members has been noncommittal and uncharacteristically quiet since Mike Conaway released his legislation last month. | AP Photo
Conservative groups are piling on against the House farm bill, underscoring the challenges confronting House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway as he seeks the GOP backing he needs to get it to the floor in May.
While Conaway’s team used last week’s congressional recess to whip the bill, H.R. 2 (115), groups including Heritage Action and Americans for Prosperity made the case to reporters and lawmakers that the bill fails to reform farm subsidies and benefits wealthy farmers and agribusiness over taxpayers.
Though farm bills have a history of being bipartisan, Democrats are vehemently opposed to Conaway’s version because it would impose new work requirements on between 5 million and 7 million low-income people enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and invest billions of dollars to expand capacity in state-run SNAP employment and training programs.
Without Democratic backing, Conaway will need to get the support of some conservative House Freedom Caucus members to pass the bill, which he hopes to bring to the floor the week of May 14. But the hard-line conservative faction of just under three dozen members has been noncommittal and uncharacteristically quiet since Conaway released his legislation last month. And the increasingly vocal opposition from outside groups isn’t helping the chairman’s cause.
“There’s not a whole lot of excitement around this bill,” among GOP conservatives, Dan Holler, vice president of Heritage Action, said last week at a briefing for reporters.
The pile-on began on Tuesday at the briefing by the Heritage Foundation, where the group’s political arm, Heritage Action, formally came out against the bill. On Wednesday the group joined about a dozen other right-leaning, free-market organizations in writing to Congress to denounce the legislation. And on Thursday, two conservative groups linked to the influential Koch brothers — Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners — penned a letter to Congress that said the bill moves the system farther away from free-market principles.
The groups took aim at some of the bill’s SNAP provisions, but their opposition is rooted in the farm policy side of the bill and, specifically, its lack of cutbacks to subsidy programs.
“Quite simply, respect for farmers doesn’t mean tolerance for wasting taxpayer money on handouts,” read the letter signed by Heritage Action and 13 other groups. “Our organizations are taking farm subsidy reform very seriously in the upcoming farm bill debate.”
Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners noted recent big-ticket spending bills the 115th Congress has passed, writing that the “reckless budget deal and the irresponsible omnibus bill” have made it increasingly important for farm and nutrition programs to be reassessed and put on a “fiscally responsible path.”
Instead, the groups wrote, the farm policy side of the House bill is “rife with corporate welfare” and includes provisions to expand access to subsidies for members of a family-owned farm, allowing cousins, nieces and nephews to qualify to collect government payments without having to live or work on a farm.
“These lavish programs already vastly exceed a reasonable safety net, yet this bill expands them further,” they wrote.
Their letter, like the one from Heritage Action and the 13 other conservative groups, faulted the House bill for ignoring subsidies reforms called for by the White House.
A spokeswoman for the House Agriculture Committee did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
When the committee marked up the bill last month, Conaway opened the session by outlining what’s at stake for the nation’s producers: “We’ve seen a 52 percent drop in net farm income over the last five years. Chapter 12 bankruptcies are up 33 percent over the last two years alone. And not long ago two key universities informed us that two-thirds of the representative farms that they use to model economic conditions in agriculture are currently in marginal or poor financial condition.”
The markup, like the entirety of the farm bill reauthorization cycle up until that point, was dominated by Democratic sniping over the bill’s proposals for SNAP.
Last week, the Congressional Budget Office released an analysis of cost estimates for the House measure. It found that placing stricter work requirements on able-bodied adults receiving SNAP benefits would save $9.2 billion over a decade as people lose eligibility. But government spending costs would grow by $7.7 billion due to costs from state employment and training programs and administrative expenses. Overall, CBO projects the nutrition title would cost taxpayers about the same over the next decade under the bill, even with the projected drop in participation.
Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners highlighted the proposals to strengthen SNAP work requirements as “positive elements” of the bill, but questioned the call to redirect expected savings from those reforms into a ramp-up of SNAP Employment and Training programs, noting that those programs have “a poor track record for delivering results.”
According to the CBO, expanding SNAP job training could take more than 10 years, but states would be given just two years to complete build-outs. CBO estimated that “by the end of 2028, about 80 percent of the beneficiaries who are subject to the work requirement would be offered such services through a state program.”
Nan Swift, director of federal affairs for the National Taxpayers Union, a conservative fiscal watchdog, argued in a blog post on Thursday that there’s “little reason” to assume that a major expansion of SNAP Employment and Training programs would lead to more SNAP beneficiaries entering the workforce.
“Legislators should think twice before creating a new opportunity to exacerbate our entitlement spending crisis,” Swift wrote.
On the other side of the political spectrum, House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) also criticized the call to build out SNAP E&T. “I think that people should work; I agree with that,” he said during a radio interview on Wednesday. “What I don’t agree with is this huge amount of money that’s being spent on a bureaucracy that is not going to accomplish anything. It’s not enough money to actually train anybody.”
The Minnesota Democrat, in a statement to POLITICO, cited “the gaggle of conservative groups lined up in opposition to this bill” as evidence that “the clear and present danger to the farm bill comes from Republicans, not from Democrats.” He also pointed to the fiscal 2019 budget blueprint that the 154-member conservative Republican Study Committee released recently that called for deep cuts to farm bill programs.
“I’ve suggested to my colleagues that we don’t offer any amendments,” Peterson added, referring to House Democrats. “We’re ready to take a step back, sit down and do this the right way, but the Republicans clearly have some deeper divisions to contend with.”
Helena Bottemiller Evich and Maya Parthasarathy contributed to this report.