Congressman Mike Conaway said he expects to release a massive farm bill in the coming months that seeks to reauthorize and reform food assistance programs this year, but revealed little on Monday about any potential cuts.
The farm bill is passed about every five years and usually relies on a coalition of Democrat and Republican support. It ties farm subsidies with federal food assistance such as after school lunch programs, Meals on Wheels and a program that channels surplus commodities to local food banks.
As Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, the District 11 Republican Conaway plays a critical role in drafting and passing the farm bill. Conaway has held three years of hearings, including some in West Texas, and influenced the farm bill that is being scored today by the Congressional Budget Office for a cost estimate.
“Right now all we’ve focused on is getting the policy correct: getting help to people when they need it,” Conaway said at the West Texas Food Bank on Monday. “For folks that need temporary help, making sure it’s there, making sure it’s temporary — it doesn’t become a way of life. …The elderly, children, the mentally and physically disabled: We are always going to be helping them.”
The bulk of spending on the farm bill funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, (SNAP), a program formally known as food stamps that Conaway called “an integral part of feeding folks here in the United States.”
Conaway said that previous attempts to change SNAP were driven by targeted cuts instead of policy. Conaway said the new farm bill will include “strengthened work requirements and training” for SNAP in an economy that is improving.
His public remarks followed a private roundtable that included officials at the West Texas Food Bank, representatives of Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, top advocates of H-E-B and Walmart, and local representatives including State Rep. Brooks Landgraf.
Representatives of Feeding Texas, the statewide food bank network, and the San Antonio Food Bank also attended the roundtable.
Attendees of the roundtable also discussed Hurricane Harvey disaster response. West Texas Food Bank Executive Director Libby Campbell said Conaway had been key in providing emergency aid after Hurricane Harvey such as disaster food stamps that eased the ongoing relief work borne by food banks.
The last farm bill passed in 2014 was considered two years late and authorized spending of about $956 billion during a 10 year period, according to the CBO. Cornyn and Cruz were among about a dozen lawmakers from Texas that voted against it.
But Conaway said he believed the new farm bill would draw bipartisan support.
“I believe it will be bipartisan; I believe it will have to be bipartisan,” Conaway said. “And this whole work has been done in conjunction with my Democrat colleagues, and I’ve not done anything specifically to flush Democrats off the bill so that they won’t support it. I’m working hard to make sure hunger is not a partisan issue.”
Several pieces of the farm bill are critically important to organizations like the West Texas Food Bank, along with the 19 counties it serves.
This includes The Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP. Under the program, the federal government purchases surplus agricultural commodities such as peanut butter or cheese and distributes them to states so they can be provided to emergency food providers like food banks.
The West Texas Food Bank also relies on federal support, authorized in the farm bill, for its Kids Café program that provides meals to children in need.
Campbell said “being able to have the ear of Chairman Conaway is so important” for the 19 counties the food bank serves ahead of the farm bill legislation.
“I think he’s going to do his very best to protect those programs that he knows are important, and I think that he also realizes that if some of those programs get cut there will be strains that will be put onto food banks that have not been there before,” Campbell said. “And I think he’s well aware of what the effects will look like on his local food bank.”
- U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway staking legacy on passing politically tricky farm bill