GOP Farm Bill Negotiators Balk at Keeping Food Stamp Work Requirements

November 30, 2018 Updated: November 30, 2018

Republican farm bill negotiators have abandoned the attempt to create additional work requirements for the country’s largest food assistance entitlement program.

Proponents say the measures would have prodded millions of recipients of the near $70 billion annual program to work toward greater economic self-sufficiency. Detractors have mostly held that the work-for-food provisions would have punished many in genuine need of help.

Congress is required to pass a farm bill every five years, although the Sept. 30 deadline to pass the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 has come and gone. With just two weeks left on the calendar before Congress adjourns for the holidays—and before Democrats assume control of the House in January—Republicans officially backtracked on the key sticking point on Nov. 29.

Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, said scrapping the provisions was critical, regardless of whether they were a good idea.

“You have to have something that will pass the Senate,” Roberts told reporters. “We took a more comprehensive approach.” A compromise deal now appears eminent, barring any impasse on other disputed issues such as forest management.

Roberts said that the cost of the final bill will also have to be determined before it can receive floor votes in the House and Senate. Earlier this year the Congressional Budget Office scored a 10-year cost estimate at $867 billion.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, accounts for 80 percent of farm bill spending and is administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The remaining 20 percent of spending encompasses farm commodity support, conservation, farm credit, trade, research, rural development, bioenergy, and foreign food aid.

After the work requirements were stripped, some House members voiced their displeasure on Twitter.

North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) couched his disappointment with the specter of voting against the near $1 trillion, 11th hour bill.

“I’m not confident, even as a conferee, that I can support #FarmBill Cmte Report. House conservatives, the President and the vast majority of Americans support policies that encourage work and help lift people out of poverty. As I’ve said for months, those provisions have to stay,” Walker wrote on Twitter on Nov. 29.

Rep. Thomas Massie, (R-Ky.), mocked the progressive single-payer health care mantra of “Medicare for All” by asking, “How long until someone runs on the platform of #FoodStampsForAll?”

“Think of how great food would be if politicians and bureaucrats decided who could provide it, how much you could eat, and what it would cost. #FoodStampsForAll seems to be catching on,” Massie said in a follow-up tweet, Nov. 29.

Both the House and Senate passed respective farm bill versions in July. Negotiators were then tasked with reconciling the two into a final bill that would have to pass House and Senate floor votes and receive the president’s signature to become law. But negotiators have been at odds ever since.

President Trump famously showed his his support for the House version on Aug. 22 via Twitter.

“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,” tweeted Trump. “Senate should go to 51 votes!”

In 2017, more than $63 billion in benefits were issued to 42 million participants, with another $5 billion in taxpayer costs for administering those benefits. 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.

Current federal law requires adults ages 18-59 who receive food stamps to work part-time or agree to accept a job if offered one. Stricter rules apply to so-called “able-bodied adults without dependents,” (ABAWD) defined as healthy adults ages 18-49 without children or elder dependents.

ABAWDs are subject to a three-month limit of SNAP benefits within a three year period unless they meet a work requirement of 80 hours per month (20 hours per week). Former President Barack Obama administratively gutted these requirements during his tenure by issuing repeated temporary waivers to states.

Under the House version of the 2018 farm bill, (H.R. 2), ABAWD work requirements would have extended to all adults capable of working, with the exception of seniors, pregnant women, caretakers of children younger than 6, and people with disabilities.

Failure to meet those requirements would have resulted in disqualification from food stamps for one month for the first instance, three months for the second, and six months for the third.

The now defunct House work provisions also would have expanded federal grants to states for SNAP-compliant job training programs, increasing the current annual budget from $90 million, to $1 billion per year by 2021, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.