House narrowly approves farm bill that could cut food stamps to millions of low-income Americans

Key Points
  • The House narrowly approved an $867 billion farm bill in a 213-211 vote but it contains provisions not included in the Senate version that could spell trouble in conference.
  • The bill has controversial provisions that could stop millions from receiving food stamps and toughen work requirements for program participants.
  • This marked the second attempt by the House to pass the farm legislation since an effort failed last month, due to an immigration squabble among Republicans.
Soybean farmers in Mississippi County, Ark.
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The House narrowly approved an $867 billion farm bill with controversial provisions that could stop millions from receiving food stamps and toughen work requirements for program participants.

The House's 213-211 vote means the legislation will go to conference with the Senate version of the bill. This marked the second attempt by the House to pass the farm bill after it failed to approve the legislation last month, due to an immigration squabble among Republicans.

There are nutritional program cuts in the House farm bill that could face problems in conference with the Senate version. The Senate Agriculture Committee's farm bill passed out of the panel June 13 and didn't include major changes in food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

"This bill does nothing to actually strengthen agriculture programs or help farmers caught in the president's trade war," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass, in a release. "I hope the bipartisan process in the Senate leads to a better bill that strengthens our farm safety net and anti-hunger programs so this attack on our most vulnerable never reaches the president's desk."

But the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture hailed at passage of the 2018 farm bill.

"Today's vote was about keeping faith with the men and women of rural America and about the enduring promise of the dignity of a day's work," Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said in a statement. "It was about providing certainty to farmers and ranchers who have been struggling under the weight of a five-year recession and about providing our neighbors in need with more than just a hand out, but a hand up."

The House farm bill includes cuts of more than $20 billion in SNAP benefits over 10 years. The legislation also contains provisions that could see more than 2 million low-income Americans lose their benefits or experience declines in financial assistance. Critics of the legislation also contend the legislation could result in nearly 265,000 children losing access to free school meals.

Total benefits paid out last year by SNAP exceeded $63 billion, and went to more than 42 million participants.

The House's farm bill — formally known as the so-called Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 — includes new work requirements for SNAP participants that tighten existing rules. The White House also has been pushing for tougher work requirements for public assistance programs that target low-income Americans, including food stamps and public housing assistance.

"They're trying to find ways to cut back on people who have access to SNAP, and frankly they're trying to do it by putting in new work requirements" said Steve Taylor, senior vice president and counsel for public policy with United Way Worldwide, a global nonprofit based in Virginia. "United Way agrees in the value and dignity of work. We want people to be able to be able to work and pull themselves out of even needing services and needing things like food stamps."

Taylor said there was United Way staff from all around the country on Capitol Hill on Thursday ahead of the farm bill vote in the House.

"What we found was there were a lot of congressional offices voting on this bill that didn't know that SNAP already has work requirements," he said. "So I think there may be some misunderstanding about exactly what the requirements are in SNAP, which is unfortunate when you're vote on a bill that is just creating obstacles for needy people."

However, some Republican members of Congress applauded the SNAP changes in the bill.

"I am especially supportive of the reforms made to SNAP, which require able-bodied individuals aged 18-59 to participate in employment training or work a minimum of 20 hours a week," said Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., in a statement. "By refocusing reforms on work requirement, those who depend on SNAP, like the elderly and disabled, still have access to the support they need, but significant steps are taken to ensure that Americans are entering the workforce and no longer dependent on federal government assistance."

The farm bill also contains changes that have angered environmentalists who claim the new rules would undermine clean water rules and exempt pesticide pollution.

The farm bill covers everything from farm subsidies and food stamps to trade and rural development policy. Farmer assistance includes commodity payment programs, as well as subsidized crop insurance. The bill is usually renewed every five years, and the current version is set to expire Sept. 30.

"Passage of a long-term Farm Bill allows farmers and ranchers to plan ahead and make decisions to improve their business," said Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., in a release. He represents a congressional district in California's Central Valley, a region known for its extensive agriculture production.

"Passage of the House farm bill today is a big win for America's farmers and ranchers," American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall said in a statement. "Our grassroots Farm Bureau members clearly made their voices heard. By approving the 2018 Farm Bill today, members of the House recognized the serious economic challenges facing farmers and ranchers across the country."

Duvall said the farm organization will now turn its attention to the Senate version of the farm bill and work with Senate Agriculture Committee leaders. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., indicated he wants to get the farm bill through the upper chamber before the July Fourth recess.

"The Senate bill also addresses the challenges our farmers and ranchers are facing today," said Duvall. "We will also continue to focus our attention on other areas important to farmers, such as finding a solution for the very serious ag labor shortage, increasing market opportunities through trade and cutting the burdens of regulations that have piled up during previous administrations."

The Sierra Club issued a press release after the farm bill's passage slamming what it called "a package that weakens the SNAP anti-hunger program and includes provisions undermining bedrock environmental safeguards for clean water, wildfire and forests."

Specifically, environmentalists say farm bill includes rollbacks on the Clean Water Act requirements as it relates to pesticides by easing rules on permits. They also called out provisions in the legislation that would speed up logging and mining in forests.