Farm Bill Negotiations Stall on Forest Management, Food Stamps

November 28, 2018 Updated: November 28, 2018

Top Trump administration officials are urging Congress to provide them with broader federal authority as part of the Farm Bill to conduct active forest management to help prevent the deadly infernos like those that have devastated parts of California over the past several years.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a National Public Radio interview on Nov. 21 that the federal government has been “litigated into paralysis about being able to do the common-sense [forestry] thinning and underbrush cleaning that needs to happen.”

“If you clean the forest floor of fuel load, you don’t have these raging forest fires that just go where you cannot contain them,” Perdue said, while attributing the years-long litany of environmentalist lawsuits to misguided fears about clear-cut logging and wildlife degradation.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke penned an op-ed on Monday, Nov. 26, and referred to California as “a tinderbox.” He claimed that years’ worth of logs, overgrown shrubs, and standing dead trees turn ground fires into deadly blazes that get out of control—as evidenced by California’s most recent wildfire disaster, the worst in the state’s history.

“President Donald Trump and I both saw the devastation of the fire on our recent trips to California: piles of rubble recognizable as houses only by their chimneys and charred appliances, and vehicles melted to the pavement in pools of molten aluminum,” Zinke said.

“Part of forest management includes reducing the fuel load by scientifically determining which trees need to be removed in order to improve forest health and resiliency. Active management doesn’t necessarily mean clear-cutting or large-scale logging, as some environmentalists would have you believe,” he said.

Zinke and Perdue, flanked by the bipartisan Congressional Western Caucus on Nov. 27, urged the inclusion of key forestry management provisions in the final version of the pending Farm Bill.

According to the Western Caucus, Northern California’s recent headline-grabbing wildfire killed 88 people, and more than 200 are still missing. “This deadly and destructive wildfire season has further solidified the need for active forest management provisions found in the House-passed bill,” the statement said.

The provisions, however, are a central sticking point in stalled Farm Bill negotiations. Congress is required to pass a new Farm Bill every five years, and both the House and Senate passed respective versions of the nearly one trillion dollar agricultural legislation in July. But significant differences regarding forest management and food stamp work requirements have held up negotiations.

The House version includes the Trump administration’s desired forestry and wildfire regulations, while the Senate version does not. Both chambers are currently Republican-controlled, although Democrats will assume control of the House after Congress adjourns for the year in just three weeks.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who sits on the Farm Bill conference committee, accused Perdue and Zinke of using California’s wildfire tragedy to advance anti-environmental policies.

“It is outrageous that House Republicans and the Trump Administration are continuing to hold up the Farm Bill negotiations over harmful and extreme forestry provisions,” Leahy said in a Nov. 21 statement.

“Secretaries Perdue and Zinke shockingly are trying to co-opt the terrible tragedies in California to push for the Trump Administration’s crass, cynical and unaccountable logging of the public’s national forests,” he said.

Another area of contention involves food entitlements. The nation’s vast food assistance programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, are administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

SNAP is by far the largest USDA food program. In 2017, more than $63 billion in benefits were issued to 42 million participants. The program exploded in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and remains significantly larger than its pre-recession size despite a vastly improved economy and near full national employment.

The House version of the Farm Bill aims to shrink SNAP enrollment, over the objections of Democrats, by cutting a paltry $20 billion in funding over the next 10 years and revamping work requirements that were administratively gutted under President Obama.

The House proposal would require so-called able-bodied adults without dependents, or healthy adults ages 18 to 59, to work at least 20 hours a week or be enrolled in expanded job training “workfare” programs to receive SNAP benefits.

Food assistance work requirements were signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, and allowed healthy adults without dependents to receive up to three months of benefits over a three year period unless they worked part-time or participated in workfare. The Congressional Budget Office projected that re-instituting the measure would reduce SNAP enrollment by 1 million enrollees over 10 years.

President Trump confirmed his support on Aug. 22.

“When the House and Senate meet on the very important Farm Bill – we love our farmers – hopefully they will be able to leave the Work Requirements for Food Stamps Provision that the House approved,” Trump said in a Twitter post. “Senate should go to 51 votes!”

Republicans added two more Senate seats in the midterm elections, but Senate Democrats have successfully held out thus far on compromising on both forestry reforms and SNAP work requirements, and they appear poised to exploit the Trump administration’s lost leverage in the House come Jan.

“What the House has proposed on forestry would kill the farm bill,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), a top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, on Nov. 27.