Welfare Fight in Congress Likely to Be Ignited by Farm Bill

(Bloomberg) -- The only major congressional debate over U.S. social-welfare policy this year may be sparked by an unlikely source: a farm bill.

The roughly $865 billion measure introduced in the House on Thursday seeks to shift funding in the food-stamp program toward job training, a move Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway, a Republican from Texas, said is necessary for recipients to develop skills needed to fill open jobs and make themselves self-sufficient. Democrats pounced on the plan, which would reduce overall enrollment.

"Breaking this poverty cycle is pretty important," Conaway told reporters as the bill was released. "We need to have that conversation with the American people on exactly what we want to accomplish."

The legislation, which would triple federal funds sent to states for employment and training programs while tightening eligibility rules for recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, wouldn’t cut overall spending on the program. Overhauling welfare, a long-time GOP goal that’s on the wish list of retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan, has stalled in Congress this year, though efforts to increase work requirements in programs such as Medicaid continue.

The measure would reauthorize all U.S. Department of Agriculture Programs, which are set to begin expiring on Sept. 30. Spending on farm subsidies and crop insurance, the two main farmer support programs, would be little changed, according to Republican House Agriculture Committee staff.

That’s left food stamps as the main point of contention. Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee, which will consider the bill next Wednesday, stopped negotiations with Republicans last month because of disagreements over the program.

Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the agriculture panel, said Thursday that introducing a farm bill without his party’s support endangers its chances at passage, threatening other agriculture programs.

"This legislation is based on false perceptions and ignores reality," Peterson said in a statement, adding that it "includes ideological language that will force people off of SNAP to pay for massive state bureaucracies that won’t work and are a waste of money."

The bill also seeks an increase in spending to promote exports, which would help many farmers who have expressed concern about threats of retaliatory tariffs proposed by China after President Donald Trump threatened to impose tariffs against soybeans and other crops from the country.

Any legislation that passes the House would have to be reconciled with the Senate version. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, and Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the panel’s top Democrat, said in a joint statement Thursday that "We’re working together as quickly as possible to produce a bipartisan bill that can pass the Senate and be enacted into law."

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