Now that the omnibus budget bill has been signed, the next really big piece of federal spending legislation on the table is the 2018 Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is traditionally a multi year law and allocates hundreds of billions of dollars for a wide array of programs, most notably agricultural subsidies and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). It also governs things like agricultural commodity pricing, land conservation, trade, development in agricultural communities, energy programs, and really any other area of regulation that is related to food and/or farming.
The previous Farm Bill is officially called the Agricultural Act of 2014. Several of the major funding components are expiring this year and work on a replacement has been ongoing with various lawmakers working on different sections since at least 2017. But now, with just months to go, communications have broken down between Republicans and Democrats working on the House version of the bill, and it’s unclear what progress will be made when lawmakers return from their spring recess in April.
Conflict over the current version of the Farm Bill began earlier this month with proposed changes to the SNAP program. There was no funding in the omnibus bill for the Harvest Box program, an idea to drastically reduce SNAP benefits for some users and instead give them prepackaged food boxes of government-selected food, so that is off the table for now. But the latest version of the Farm Bill is supposed to include Republican driven adjustments to the program that would make it harder for able bodied adults who aren’t working, training, or caring for a child to access SNAP benefits. It would also redirect some funding away from benefits and into training programs.
Republican leadership have not yet released language on the specifics of the changes so there is no way to know how many people will be impacted, exactly how strict the new requirements would be, and other details. The Democrats ire seems to have almost as much to do with the fact that they are being asked to take Republicans word for what’s being changed as it does with the actual changes themselves.
Because of the size and scope of the Farm Bill bipartisan support is usually necessary to get it passed, but as of now House Republicans have announced their intent to move forward without Democratic involvement in the bill. That strategy may pay off in the House but a bill won’t be able to get through the Senate without support from at least some Democrats so this entire argument may end up being moot if the Senate has to write a new Farm Bill, or at least new SNAP section from scratch in order to get it passed.
SNAP accounts for the majority of the spending in the Farm Bill, but the other big ticket items are agricultural subsidies, many of which are linked to important conservation measures, so there is strong motivation from both sides to get something passed before current subsidies begin to expire in September. If they can’t reach some kind of agreement and the Farm Bill expires regulations will revert back the permanent Farm Bill, which was passed in 1949. This is what happened when a similarly dysfunctional House allowed the Farm Bill to expire in 2012. It wasn’t a disaster then, and it probably won’t be this time around either. But if they can’t reach some sort of agreement before too long then a number of programs that are pretty essential to anyone who grows or eats food in the U.S. will run out of funds.