The long and very winding road to a new five-year farm bill took the expected new turn today when the House voted 217 to 210 to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (better known as food stamps) by $39 billion over the next decade. The bill includes a prominent proposal to prohibit states from waiving work requirements for certain adults receiving food stamp benefits even in areas of high unemployment and inadequate job creation. That provision accounts for nearly half of the total savings and was added to the bill not by the House Agriculture Committee under normal congressional procedures, but by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and a small group of Republican legislators he selected to put the bill together.
Also new in the bill approved today was a provision to permanently remove nutrition programs, including SNAP, from the farm bill. That provision — also one that was not approved by the House Agriculture Committee under normal congressional procedure — would dictate that nutrition programs be approved by Congress every three years, while the rest of the farm bill would remain on a five-year schedule. If this provision were to become law, it would place future passage of farm bills in serious doubt.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill would remove 3.8 million Americans from the food stamp program in 2014 and an average of 2.8 million people over the course of the next decade. In addition, nearly a million people would see their benefit levels reduced.
No Democrats voted for the bill, and 15 Republicans also voted no: Chris Gibson, Michael Grimm, Richard Hanna, and Peter King of New York; Frank LoBiondo and Chris Smith of New Jersey; Michael Fitzpatrick and Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania; Gary Miller and David Valadao of California; plus Shelley Moore Capito (WV), Jeff Fortenberry (NE), , Walter Jones (NC), Frank Wolf (VA), and Don Young (AK). Had all Members voted, a single additional Republican defection would have doomed the bill. Additional Republicans had hinted at a no vote, but likely were whipped into line by leadership to ensure passage.
Surprisingly, the rule governing today’s floor debate did not contain a provision to merge this new nutrition-only farm bill with the previously passed farm-only farm bill into a single comprehensive bill. The House can only take a single bill into conference with the Senate’s comprehensive farm bill. Hence, without somehow merging their two separate bills into one, they would be forced to decide on one or the other. It is now expected that the House will vote next week to re-merge the two halves of the bill and then, presumably, name its conferees to meet with the Senate conferees to forge a final, comprehensive bill.
That action to merge the bills could have taken place today but many assume that the vote to merge the bills was postponed until next week due to the precariousness of today’s vote. Some who voted for the bill today may have voted against it had their vote today also been a vote to merge the bills.
A key question — perhaps the key question — is what happens to the farm bill negotiated by the conference committee. Following the farm bill conference negotiations (assuming they happen and that the conference committee approves a final bill), the big unknown is whether a majority of the House Republican Caucus would vote for a conference bill if, as seems likely, the cuts to food stamps are much closer to the Senate bill. The House-passed cut to SNAP is ten times higher than the Senate bill, which proposes just over $4 billion in cuts to the program. If the House Republican Caucus can pass a farm bill with a lower cut to SNAP, then there will be a new farm bill. If not, the follow up question is whether the House Republican leadership would allow the bill to pass, nonetheless, with a minority of the Republican caucus voting yes but with a majority of Democrats voting yes. The House Republican leadership has been very reluctant to let that happen in recent years, but has made exceptions in some high profile cases.
With that thought no doubt in her mind, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) on Wednesday said, “What the House Republicans are voting on is nothing more than extremely divisive, extremely partisan political exercise that by the way is going nowhere. And it is jeopardizing the passage of a five-year farm bill.”
There is also the possibility that a conferenced farm bill would be attached to another must-pass piece of legislation, such as a potential deal on the debt ceiling later this fall. In that case, Members of Congress would be voting on a bigger package, and the farm bill conference package would be hitching a ride. Many more factors would influence a Member’s vote, and the issues specific to the farm bill could potentially take a back seat.
The newly approved House bill includes, in addition to new SNAP provisions related to work requirements, all of the provisions of the nutrition title reported by the House Agriculture Committee and the amendments to the nutrition title approved on the House floor prior to the House voting down the whole farm bill back in June.
As we explain in an earlier post, the bill therefore includes multiple local and regional food provisions strongly supported by NSAC. If the House is able to re-merge the new nutrition bill with the farm-only farm bill next week, this means that all of the positive local food and farm to school provisions will be under review by the House-Senate conference committee, if and when that committee begins its work.
For a thorough review of all the SNAP provisions in the House-passed bill, the budget cuts broken down provision by provision, and state-by-state data on the impact of the proposed cuts, see the detailed report Cuts in House Leadership SNAP Proposal Would Affect Millions of Low-Income Americans by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.