By Sara Wyant
Special to the Farm Forum
Shortly after the U.S. House of Representatives defeated the Farm Bill on June 20, 2013, Rep. Justin Amash, along with hundreds of business leaders, government officials and staff, attended a $250-a-plate dinner hosted by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). The libertarian group, which espouses “free market” principles, made a James Bond spoof video called “Capitalism Never Dies,” and the group’s president, Lawson Bader, sported a kilt in tribute to retired actor Sean Connery.
But before the elaborate Bond-themed dinner began, the master of ceremonies announced two other reasons to celebrate: CEI had just raised $1 million from sources like Google, Facebook, Koch, Altria and the Association of American Railroads. Plus, there was the political victory: the organization had helped defeat the Farm Bill – thanks in part to Michigan Representative Amash and dozens of other House conservatives.
CEI aligned with conservative groups, such as Heritage Action, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the National Taxpayers Union, along with an eclectic mix of other organizations, including the National Black Farmers Association, Defenders of Wildlife and the Environmental Working Group, to bring down the Farm Bill.
It was widely known that conservative Republicans had concerns about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as the food stamp program. They supported splitting the nutrition and farm portions of the bill, while adding more work requirements for SNAP recipients.
However, Amash also opposed price supports and other farm programs “because they damage the economy, harm consumers, and hurt the environment by encouraging more agricultural production than may be necessary,” he explained on his Facebook page.
Asked after the CEI dinner what it would take to win his support for the Farm Bill, Amash echoed concerns from many conservatives. He wanted to see big cuts in SNAP, but also in crop insurance.
Fast forward to 2018 and you can see some of the same people and well-funded organizations trying to bring down the Farm Bill once again. They are writing papers, hosting press conferences, and engaging on social media – attempting to change almost all portions of the bill.
But there are a few minor differences between 2018 and 2013.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, has support from House GOP leaders. Speaker Paul Ryan embraced the SNAP portion of the bill as part of his “welfare to work” agenda. Republican leaders signaled the importance of getting a Farm Bill done on time this year, even numbering the measure H.R. 2. The major tax reform package that passed last year was H.R. 1.
Conaway has been meeting with the Freedom Caucus and other GOP conservative groups, hoping to convince Amash and others that the Farm Bill he pushed through committee has the right kind of reforms in the nutrition section of the bill – while fending off reforms in the “farm” sections of the bill.
“We’re doing the right stuff on SNAP, and that’s the focus of much of the (GOP) conference,” he said.
But in many ways, Conaway is trying to thread the needle around a lot of competing interests.
“It’s a question of, is there enough good stuff on the SNAP side to cause those who have had trouble in the past with the overall Farm Bill to vote ‘yes’ when we bring it to the floor,” he told Agri-Pulse.
Conaway is also telling conservatives that amendments that would require means testing, payment limits, cuts to crop insurance premium subsidies, and reform of the sugar program, could bring down the entire bill. And if that happens, it would risk the SNAP reforms that are meant to win conservative support.
To win approval on the House floor, where the GOP holds a 235-193 seat majority, Conaway will need every Republican he can find because he can’t count on any Democrats to support the package.
Democrats don’t like the bill because of changes that were made in the nutrition title of the bill, requiring more people to work or enroll in training programs to qualify for SNAP benefits. They also don’t like the commodity title. During the committee’s markup, no Democrats voted in favor of the bill or offered amendments to change the measure.
The House Agriculture Committee’s ranking member, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, said recently that Democrats won’t offer any amendments and will be united in opposing the bill when it comes to the House floor. They argue that the bill is unfixable because of the SNAP reforms and the inadequacy of the farm income support. And they are guessing that Republicans will not be able to find enough votes to pass the bill on their own.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is also weighing in. She’s pleased with how her Democratic colleagues have handled the House Farm Bill debate.
“I’m very proud of Collin Peterson and the members of our ag committee who are fighting for farmers,” Pelosi said during a recent visit to Iowa. “They have your back, but we don’t have all the votes.”
House Republicans don’t either, she added, and she’s waiting to see if the Farm Bill actually comes to the floor next week as planned.
“Supposedly this is coming up soon, but it was going to come up the week before last. We’ll see if they go forward with it.”
Oddly enough, some lobbyists believe that Pelosi’s comments may help Conaway’s cause to pass a new Farm Bill.
“There are a lot of conservative House members who don’t like this Farm Bill,” noted one long-time Farm Bill observer who asked to remain anonymous. “But they hate Pelosi even more.”
For more news, go to www.Agri-Pulse.com.