WASHINGTON — A divided Congress is likely to make it harder to win agreement on a farm bill next year, with fights likely over the proposed changes to food stamp and other U.S. Department of Agriculture programs.
There assuredly will be efforts – likely to fail – to end the milk program and phase out the sugar program, which benefits Minnesota sugar beet growers and dairy farmers as well as debates over cutting federal subsidies for crop insurance.
The current five-year $428 billion bill farm bill will expire on Sept. 30 of next year, and so will most farm programs.
To fashion a new farm bill, the agriculture committees in the House and Senate will hold dozens of hearings in Washington, D.C. and across the nation, and have already begun doing so. Minnesota Reps. Brad Finstad, R-1st, Angie Craig, D-2nd, and Michelle Fischbach, R-7th, as well as Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, both Democrats, sit on those committees.
The crunch will come after members of the House and Senate agriculture committees draft the next five-year farm bill. While the Senate remained in Democratic control, last month’s elections gave the GOP a slim majority in the House.
That could impact the debate over the next farm bill, especially when it comes to the largest and most popular program in the legislation, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the official name for food stamps. About 75% of farm bill funds go toward anti-hunger programs, mostly to food stamps, which are funded by the federal government and administered by the states.
The Republican Study Committee (RSC,) an influential group of more than 140 conservative House Republicans, including Reps. Tom Emmer, R-6th, Fischbach and Pete Stauber, R-8th, proposed big changes to SNAP in a wide ranging document released this summer, the “Blueprint to Save America.”
A great majority of House Agriculture Committee Republicans are RSC members, whose “blueprint” calls for cutting benefits to childless, single adult recipients and imposing stricter asset tests to those applying for food stamps. The proposal also calls for the removal of all the nutrition programs from the farm bill and turning the SNAP program into block grants to the states in order to reduce the cost and size of the program.
Bills aimed at combatting the pandemic expanded the food stamp program, and recipients have also received a recent boost in benefits because of the rising price of food.
In fiscal year 2023, which started on Oct. 1, an individual with an income at or below 130% the poverty line — that is, $1,920 a month for a family of three — was eligible to receive $281 in food stamp benefits every month.
According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, nearly 450,000 Minnesotans benefitted from the food stamp program in October, up from 425,000 who were served by the program in January, as food insecurity continues to plague Minnesota and much of the country.
Rachel Sosnowchik, spokeswoman for Second Harvest Heartland, a Brooklyn Park-based anti-hunger group, said cuts to food stamps and other nutrition programs “is definitely a concern we have.”
“What we need is an expansion of programs like SNAP,” Sosnowshik said.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., is expected to remain the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee in the new Congress. She’s a passionate supporter of the food stamp program and sought to increase funding for SNAP.
Other Democrats on the Senate Agriculture Committee are also prepared to protect SNAP.
“When Minnesota families can access nutritious meals, we see the benefits in reduced food insecurity, improved academic performance, and long-term health outcomes,” said Sen. Tina Smith. “That is not only good for the Minnesotans who benefit, it’s good for our economy and our communities as a whole.”
Anti-hunger advocates also have powerful allies in the nation’s farmland.
Minnesota Farm Bureau President Dan Glessing said the agriculture community would fight to keep the nutrition programs in the farm bill, with all of the other USDA programs.
“This is a food bill,” he said. “They should not be separated.”
Glessing said he also opposes any other changes that would restrict SNAP eligibility. The political clout of the nation’s farmers is likely to prevail.
The GOP takeover of the House is likely to elevated Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., to chairman of the House Agriculture Committee in the new Congress.
Thompson had for years joined other Republicans in pushing for reform of SNAP. He’s called for limits on benefits to childless “able bodied” adults, stricter limits on assets owned by beneficiaries and stricter guidelines on what foods SNAP users can spend their benefits on.
But lately Thompson has focused on other types of reforms, including working to make food stamp recipients independent through education and better access to jobs. Thompson has said there are no “pre-drawn conclusions” that Republicans will try to use the measure to cut nutrition assistance programs. But he has voiced concerns over the growing cost of the food stamp program, projected to reach more than $1 trillion over the next decade.
Thompson said he wants to produce a final House farm bill by July.
Yet a new fight over food stamps could stall final passage of the next farm bill. Approval of the 2013 farm bill was held up more than a year as conservative House Republicans tried unsuccessfully to strip the bill of nutrition programs.
And the farm bills failed on the House floor in 2018 because of revolts by Democrats over proposed GOP cuts to SNAP, once again delaying approval of the legislation.
Karen Dolan, an anti-poverty advocate at the Institute for Policy Studies, said she thinks keeping the SNAP program whole “is going to be a difficult fight now that conservatives control the House of Representatives.”
Most vulnerable is the expansion of the food stamp program that was established by pandemic legislation, which are subject to waivers granted states, like Minnesota, that continue their emergency declarations. It’s unclear how long the Biden administration will approve these emergency waivers, but most expect them to end before next summer.
A new farm bill may not include that expansion, which will hurt children in low-income families, Dolan said.
“Problems aren’t going to go away when the emergency declarations go away,” she said.
Other flashpoints during debate over the next farm bill are likely to center on proposals to end the U.S. Department of Agriculture milk program, which protects dairy farmers from falling prices and rising cost of feed, and phase out the USDA sugar program, which guarantees American sugar cane and sugar beet farmers prices that are higher than those of sugar produced overseas.
There may also be a debate over the crop insurance, a program that insulates farmers from the loss of their crops due to natural disasters or loss of revenue due to declines in the prices of agricultural commodities. The program is especially helpful to Minnesota’s wheat, corn and soybean farmers, as well as those who plant and harvest other row crops.
Farmers pay about 40% of the cost of premiums for crop insurance and the USDA pays the remaining 60%. The Republican Study Committee has proposed cutting the federal subsidy to 30%.
Glessing of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, who raises corn, soybeans and alfalfa on land that’s been in his family for four generations, said “it’s important to keep crop insurance what it is.”
Despite the uncertainties about the divided Congress that will be gaveled in on Jan. 3, Glessing said the state’s farmers will “try to keep what we got,” and hoped for “tweaks,” not a major overhaul, of the nation’s farm programs.
Still, it may be too early to make many predictions, Glessing said.
“No real rubber has hit the road yet,” he said.