CHN: Farm Bill Fails on House Floor – What’s Next?

On Thursday June 20, the House rejected a 5-year farm bill on the floor for the first time in forty years. The bill (H.R. 1947) was defeated by a vote of 195-234 with only 24 Democrats voting in favor and a notable 62 Republicans voting against it. The bill was defeated because of concerns over cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) on both sides of the aisle; Democrats voting no because they believed that the proposed cuts and restrictive amendments were too harsh and Republicans because they found the cuts too small.
Already modest, SNAP benefits are now set at less than $1.50 per meal per person and will be further reduced after a temporary increase expires on November 1, which will slash $25 in benefits per month for a family of three. Nutrition advocates hail H.R. 1947’s defeat in light of its deep cuts to the SNAP program.  The underlying bill would cut SNAP by $20.5 billion, denying benefits altogether to 2 million people and reducing benefits by $90 a month for another 850,000 households.  Amendments adopted on the floor would result in even more losing assistance.

A contentious amendment that severely weakened Democratic support for the bill, introduced by Representative Steve Southerland (R – FL), would allow state pilot programs to mandate work requirements for SNAP recipients. States participating in the program would be required to pay for the cost of training and employment up front. They would also share equally with the federal government any revenues from reducing expenditures on SNAP. Nutrition and low-income advocates fear that this would provide incentive for states to remove families from their SNAP participant rolls in order to increase revenue. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Stacy Dean was quoted in a Politico article saying “I can’t remember a time when policymakers ever considered giving states a kickback for refusing to serve unemployed mothers with young children.” The amendment, which Republicans praised as following in the footsteps of 1996 welfare reform, was approved almost entirely along party lines by a 227-198 vote – just minutes before the vote on the full farm bill.

Only one Democrat, Representative Jim Cooper (D – TN), voted in favor of the amendment. And of the sixty-two Republicans who voted against H.R. 1947, all but one had voted for it.

An amendment by Tim Huelskamp (R – KS), which sought to create extra work requirements for SNAP recipients and cut SNAP by an additional $9.5 million, was easily defeated 175-250. No Democrats voted in favor and 57 Republicans voted against it.

Another harsh amendment aimed at SNAP recipients was offered by Representative Richard Hudson (R – NC). It would make drug testing a requirement for all SNAP applicants. Currently, states are able to drug test applicants who have a prior history of drug crime, but this amendment would make such tests routine, adding another hoop for applicants to jump through. Nutrition advocates worry that this provision would impact the children of SNAP-eligible parents who might be deterred from applying for the program. Of the 48.5 million people in poverty, about half are children. Evaluations of drug-testing programs for TANF recipients showed that virtually no illegal drug use was detected, and were not found to be cost-effective. The amendment was approved by voice vote.

Long-term SNAP supporter Representative Jim McGovern (D – MA) introduced an amendment that would restore the $20.5 billion 10-year cut to SNAP.  The amendment had great support from House Democrats but did not have enough votes to pass; it failed 188 to 234, mostly along party lines. Anti-hunger advocates were pleased by the strong show of support for the amendment – and even some bipartisan support, with five Republicans voting yes.

The House leadership must now decide upon a path forward. Majority Leader Cantor (R-VA) has stressed his party’s desire to pass a bill before the August recess, but the feasibility of this wish is uncertain because appropriations bills are expected to require substantial amounts of floor time when Congress returns from the July 4th recess.

Rep. Southerland has suggested that H.R. 1947 return to the floor without his amendment, although its removal might not be enough to pass the bill. Many in Congress consider a one-year extension of the 2008 farm bill the easiest and most viable option, although certain programs like the Wetland Reserves would lose authorization. The current farm bill has already been extended once, in January 2013.

In a recent development, some House conservatives have called to split the farm bill into two parts (farm policy and nutrition policy), ending years of precedent for passing the two issues together. Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R –OK), along with many others in Congress, finds this idea unacceptable because farm provisions have always needed the votes of members more concerned about nutrition programs to pass. Instead, Lucas and his colleagues are deciding upon trying to pass a bill aimed at garnering more Republican votes or one that will win more Democrats to their side.

Congress has until September 30, when the farm bill expires, to make a decision. If nothing happens, SNAP will continue because SNAP is a permanently authorized program, but the various farm support and conservation provisions will end.

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