The biggest piece of legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway during his career as a lawmaker will hit the floor of the House of Representatives this week — a farm bill that includes stricter work requirements for the food-stamp program used by more than 42 million Americans.
Typically a farm bill passes about every five years with a coalition of Democrat and Republican support, and as chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, Conaway plays a critical role in shaping the legislation. Absent this time is the bipartisan support. Conaway’s proposal passed the ag committee on party lines.
But Conaway says he believes he has the 218 votes necessary to pass the bill, expected to cost $867 billion over 10 years. The farm bill funds a wide range of food and farming issues such crop insurance, land conservation and rural development — elements that Conaway said were crafted with bipartisan support before House Democrats left the bargaining table over disagreement on proposed changes to the food stamp program.
“I’ve got to accommodate folks on the moderate side of our caucus as well as the uber-right,” Conaway said, in order to get the necessary votes. “I’ve got to have part of both of them. The bill is just good policy, and that policy had attracted folks on the right — work requirements and those kinds of things — and then some of the guys on the left were uncomfortable with enforcing the rules. That was where we were trying to hit the sweet spot. When I put all that together, I assumed I had Democrats.”
Conaway’s plan sets new work requirements for all participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, (SNAP), known as food stamps. It also requires job training for unemployed recipients who can’t find jobs and increases funding for states mandated to administer those programs for all eligible adults. Texas already has workforce requirements, but some states including California provide waivers to food stamp recipients.
The food stamp proposal would also strengthen enforcement of rules that require adults from the ages 18 to 59 (with several exemptions) to work at least a part-time job or accept one if it’s offered to them.
There would still be exceptions made for people with disabilities, pregnant women, and parents with children younger than 6. The workforce requirements, he said, would create a “ladder of opportunity that gets them to the point where they are taking care of themselves.”
“This economy is growing, and what better time to enforce work requirements than when there are a lot of new jobs coming around and are out there,” Conaway said.
Last week, Conaway and other lawmakers met with President Donald Trump about the farm bill. First, Conaway said “He thanked me for the job I did on the Russia thing” — The congressman helmed the House Intelligence Committee that concluded in March, over the objection of Democrats, that Russia interfered in the 2016 election but said there was no evidence of collusion by associates of Trump.
The meeting left Conaway confident the president would support the House version of the bill, which would likely see some softening of the work requirement in the Senate, where it will need bipartisan support.
“He’s strong on work requirements, and I asked him to use his prodigious social media stuff to promote it,” Conaway said.
The Senate has not released a version of a farm bill. Once both chambers pass a farm bill, they would be expected to hammer out a compromise.
Certain changes being debated could kill the deal, such as weakened crop insurance or doing away with commodity price supports for sugar producers, Conaway said. Conaway said eliminating trade protection for American sugar producers would create an “existential threat” to those farmers and force him to vote against his own bill.
“That’s part of why I want to get the best bill out there we can, the best policy we can possibly get, because I know that in conference it will get changed,” Conaway said. “I am not naïve or arrogant enough to believe that what I got out of committee three weeks ago is going to be what gets to the president’s desk. There are all kinds of changes that are going to have to be made, all kinds of compromises.”
West Texas Food Bank Executive Director Libby Campbell, who said the farm bill is critically important for the food bank and the 19 counties it serves, testified before the ag committee and has traveled to Washington D.C. to weigh in on the bill.
“He did the best possible job that he could in the environment that he’s in,” Campbell said.
Elements concerned her. She said the exemption from workforce requirements for parents of children younger than 6 would still result in young children left at home. (Conaway’s initial proposal established the age at 12). Campbell also worried about the affect of the workforce requirements in rural areas where people might lack access to workforce training or jobs.
But Campbell also pointed to several positive reforms in the bill such as increased transportation funding and access to farm produce that will benefit food banks, and relaxed rules that do not punish food stamp recipients for having a savings account or a car.
“Chairman Conaway has spent years researching the policies and procedures that affect not only our hunger community but our ag community, and I think what he has been focused on is not numerical cuts but changes in policy,” Campbell said. “How do we make the policy behind these programs more effective so they work better for the people who depend on them. Our country needs a farm bill.”