Food-Stamp Fight Imperils Farm Bill

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GOP seeks to nudge people away from receiving federal benefits and incentivize them to work

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL – KRISTINA PETERSON – WASHINGTON—House Speaker Paul Ryan’s long-sought goal of overhauling welfare programs will get a kick-start when Congress returns to Washington this week, as Republicans prepare to release a new, five-year farm bill that would impose tougher work requirements to get food stamps.

With the government funded until October and control of the House up for grabs in November’s midterm elections, the Republicans’ effort to overhaul the food-stamp program as part of the farm bill is raising what is likely to be one of the last policy fights in Congress this year.

The House is also expected to vote later this week on a constitutional amendment that would require a balanced federal budget, a largely symbolic move given that it would need the approval of two-thirds of both the House and the Senate, as well as ratification by 38 of the 50 state legislatures. That appears unlikely, particularly since Congress approved last month a $1.3 trillion spending bill that added more to the federal deficit.

The fight over the farm bill—a piece of legislation with an estimated price tag of about $900 billion that is set to expire at the end of September—has been brewing for weeks. But the outlines of the GOP proposal to rewrite the nutrition provisions that make up about 80% of the bill’s funding have already prompted a partisan standoff in the House Agriculture Committee.

“The Agriculture Committee has always been the most bipartisan committee in the House—now we’re just like all the rest of them,” Rep. Marcia Fudge (D., Ohio) said.

Mr. Ryan (R., Wis.) has kept his focus on the farm bill as the next avenue for trying to shave the number of people receiving federal benefits and incentivize them to work. He has had larger targets but there is little appetite on Capitol Hill ahead of the November election to tinker with more popular benefits, such as those under Social Security and Medicare.

“When it comes to the farm bill and other welfare programs on our workforce development program, we can get some good welfare reforms there as well,” Mr. Ryan said shortly before Congress departed for a two-week recess.

Under the GOP proposal, able-bodied adults between 18 years old and nearing retirement, without young children, would have to work to be eligible for food stamps, according to lawmakers and aides. If they aren’t working, they would be required to take a minimum of 20 hours a week of new job-training classes, increasing to 25 hours in 2026.

The program currently has work requirements for most able-bodied people between the ages of 18 and 49, although governors in states with high unemployment can waive those. The current rules contain exemptions, including for those under 18, people with young children, elderly adults and those who are pregnant or disabled. Many of those exemptions are expected to be retained.

The House GOP plan has sparked pushback from Democrats on the Agriculture Committee, who said in a statement in late March that they were unanimously opposed to it.

The proposal “is Ryan’s attempt to do welfare reform,” said Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the panel’s longtime top Democrat and one of the most centrist members of his party. “We’re the guinea pigs, that’s the problem,” he said.

Rep. Mike Conaway (R., Texas), chairman of the Agriculture Committee, has said that the proposed food stamp changes came out of the panel’s policy research, noting that the committee has held 21 hearings on the program since 2015.

“We’re going to get you on that ladder to success that gets you off these programs and having you take care of your family the old-fashioned way,” Mr. Conaway said in a speech in Texas last month. “If you choose not to, if you say, ‘Well, you know, that food stamp thing is just not worth it, don’t want to work,’ great. We’re Americans. That’s your choice.”

Some Republicans have said the tougher work provisions could be risky politically and may not end up in the final bill. The Senate version of the bill is likely to be less contentious because legislation needs 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles in the upper chamber, where Republicans hold 51 seats.

“Any time you’re making major reforms in any entitlement program, there’s always peril,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R., Okla.), a former chairman of the Agriculture Committee. “I don’t see any other movement among any other committee on welfare-reform issues.”

Food stamps have been divisive in the past, leading to a fight that caused the last farm bill to fail on the House floor in an initial vote in 2013.

The GOP push could be tricky for the handful of Republicans on the Agriculture Committee running for re-election in competitive districts this fall, including Reps. Don Bacon of Nebraska, John Faso of New York and Jeff Denham of California.

Mr. Bacon said he wasn’t worried about selling the GOP proposal to his constituents, although he said it was unfortunate that the proposal had created a partisan rift on the panel.

“It helps give folks tools to get back to work, so I think it strikes the right balance,” Mr. Bacon said.

Democrats have argued that people are unlikely to show up for the job-training classes for the relatively modest amount of food-stamp benefits they would receive and that the work-training programs would create new, expensive bureaucracy.

The clash over the food-stamp provisions has left the committee at a standstill and cast doubt over whether they will be able to pass a new farm bill this year.

“It is on life support,” Mr. Peterson said in late March. “I think if you were a betting person, you would want to bet on an extension.”

Mr. Lucas warned that lawmakers shouldn’t let the food-stamp fight derail the whole bill. He said he tells his constituents: “It doesn’t matter how much you subsidize people’s food if we don’t raise it—if it’s not on the shelf, it’s not available to purchase.”

Heather Haddon and Jesse Newman contributed to this article.

Posted By: Kristina Peterson – April 8, 2018 7:00 a.m. ET

The Wall Street Journal

Photo: leah millis/Reuters