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6 things to watch in the House farm bill, from food-stamp work requirements to school lunch

The farm bill is about way more than just agriculture. (Getty Images/iStock)

House lawmakers are expected to gather on Capitol Hill on Friday to vote on the 2018 Farm Bill, a massive legislative package that covers everything from agricultural loans and rural broadband to research funding and food assistance.

The bill has historically passed the House on a bipartisan basis — a testament to the wide swath of programs and interests it involves. But in 2014, and again this year, the Farm Bill has been threatened by fractious debates around farm subsidies, crop supports, and the place of work requirements in food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

It’s important to remember that, even if this bill passes the House, it has little chance of becoming law. The Senate is also working on a Farm Bill, and the two chambers will have to reconcile their work before a final compromise goes to President Trump for his signature.

Still, the debates over food and farm policy in the House are a good bellwether of issues that may surface in the Senate — and they provide a snapshot of where food politics stands. Here are six hot-button topics worth watching as the Farm Bill progresses.

Food stamps

The issue: The House Farm Bill proposes new, stricter work rules for most able-bodied adults in the food stamp program, the federal safety net that provides an average of $125 per month in grocery money to 42.3 million Americans. Under the proposal, adults will have to spend 20 hours per week either working or participating in a state-run training program as a condition to receive benefits. Because states do not have enough training slots to accommodate the up to 7 million adults who would be subject to the requirement, the bill also provides $1 billion per year to scale up those programs.

The controversy: Democrats and anti-hunger advocates say most states do not have the capacity to scale up either case management or training programs to this extent. As a result, they argue, hundreds of thousands of low-income adults could end up losing benefits. Estimates from the Congressional Budget Office support some of these concerns: Even 10 years from now, the office predicts, states will only have training slots for 80 percent of the people who need them.

Conservative Republicans have also panned the proposal on the basis that it doesn’t go far enough. They say the plan makes only minimal changes to Department of Agriculture waivers, which allow states to suspend work requirements in high-unemployment areas. Thirty-six states hold full or partial waivers.

Read more: GOP proposes stricter work requirements for food stamp recipients, a step toward a major overhaul of the social safety net

Sugar reform

The issue: The federal government supports the U.S. sugar industry through programs that both control the amount of foreign and domestic sugar on the U.S. market and guarantee a minimum price for producers if sugar prices drop. But an amendment introduced by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) last week would begin to dismantle the program, eliminating production limits for U.S. growers and opening the door for more imports.

The controversy: Both Republicans and Democrats from sugar-producing states — mostly in the Great Plains and the South — staunchly oppose changes to the sugar program, which they say protects farmers from subsidized foreign competitors eager to dump cheap product on the U.S. market.

But food manufacturers and free-market conservatives, including Foxx, argue the program has long benefited a handful of large companies while driving up foodmakers’ costs. During a debate on the House floor Thursday, Foxx described the program as a “bona fide job killer” that had prevented food companies from expanding. Nonetheless, her amendment — which risked scuttling the whole bill — was easily defeated, 278-137, after 20 minutes of heated debate.

Read more: Why Americans pay more for sugar

School lunch

The issue: Congress and the Obama administration overhauled school menus' nutrition, setting new standards for the amount of salt, sugar and whole grains in the National School Lunch Program. A Farm Bill amendment adopted Wednesday, however, directs USDA to reevaluate those regulations.

The controversy: Obama’s lunch campaign was never popular with Republicans or school food service workers, who said the changes increased costs and left them dealing with grumbling students. Under Trump, USDA has delayed a number of the planned changes on the basis that children weren't eating the lunches.

But there is little doubt the changes to school meals achieved their goal: improving child nutrition. Multiple studies have since demonstrated that school lunch has gotten healthier, a point made during floor debate Thursday by Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), who opposes the amendment.

Read more: Trump official freezes Michelle Obama's plan to fight childhood obesity

Farm subsidies

The issue: To guard the farm economy against unpredictable market shifts, the Department of Agriculture compensates farmers when average crop prices fall below predetermined references. The Farm Bill proposes an expansion of who counts as a “farmer,” for subsidy purposes. Among other things, it would eliminate payment caps for corporately owned farms and allow cousins, nieces and nephews to qualify for payments on family-owned ones. By contrast, an amendment introduced by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) would phase out crop subsidies all together.

The controversy: Crop subsidies are beloved by large commodity farmers and the lawmakers who represent them. They are despised by fiscal conservatives, environmentalists and free-market groups who say they amount to corporate welfare. Federal data indicates that subsidies do go overwhelmingly to the country’s largest farms, and some critics have suggested the program actually gives incentives for consolidated agribusinesses to grow larger.

Still, crop subsidies have their defenders — particularly in places like the corn and soy belts. While the issue tends to surface every Farm Bill cycle, Congress has yet to enact reforms that would significantly cut spending in the programs.

Read more: Why do taxpayers subsidize rich farmers?

Cage-free eggs

The issue: California and several other states have banned the sale of eggs from hens raised in battery cages. But because California is a huge market for eggs, producers in Iowa, Ohio and other states say the rule has unfairly burdened them. An amendment proposed by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) would ban state and local governments from imposing standards on other states' agricultural products.

The controversy: King has said the measure will prevent individual states from effectively setting the law of the land. In doing so the Iowa Republican has echoed the arguments of numerous state attorneys general, who sued California over the egg rules last year and claimed it violated the commerce clause of the constitution.

Animal welfare advocates, on the other hand, say the King Amendment would undermine important welfare standards for chickens and other farm animals — standards that many advocates have themselves backed. Harvard's Animal Law & Policy Program has also argued that the measure is phrased so broadly it could prevent states from enforcing laws on everything from invasive pests to narcotics.

Read more: How eggs became a victory for the animal welfare movement


The issue: Since farms are a significant source of pollution and erosion, Congress has funded a number of programs to ease their environmental impact. Chief among those is the Conservation Stewardship Program, which essentially awards five-year grants to farmers addressing soil, air and water quality on their land. The Farm Bill eliminates much of CSP and folds it into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which is oriented toward compensating farmers for one-off conservation projects.

The controversy: Sustainable agriculture groups have decried the cuts, arguing that CSP gives farmers unique, comprehensive resources. The bill also cuts overall conservation funding by $800 million over the next decade, according to predictions by the Congressional Budget Office.

House Republicans, on the other hand, say they’ve done little more than combine similar programs to make them more efficient. And they have increased funding for some other conservation projects, including a program that prevents agricultural land from being lost to development.

Read more: One way to get Big Agriculture to clean up its act

If the House bill passes, all eyes will turn next to the Senate.