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Farm Bill Controversy Centers On Food Stamps


All right, the House is set to vote this week on a farm bill. Now, the name farm bill, for some, could conjure up images of cattle, corn, soybeans. But it's as much a food safety net program as anything else. And NPR's Kelsey Snell reports that this once-bipartisan bill is at risk of failing after complaints from both parties, mostly focusing on food stamps.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: The farm bill is generally known as the biggest safety net for millions of farmers across the country. But it also includes the supplemental nutrition program known as SNAP, or food stamps. Last year, 40 million people used the program, totaling about $70 billion in spending. And conservatives like House Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows have turned the legislation into a last-minute election year opportunity. They want Republicans to deliver on their promise to cut government spending.


MARK MEADOWS: You know, 76 percent of this farm bill has nothing to do with farms, you know? So when you look at that, 24 percent of it actually is about farms and supporting our farmers.

SNELL: Meadows said in a recent interview on C-SPAN that spending on food stamps is one of the biggest issues standing in the way of conservative support. But food stamps are in the farm bill because of politics. It was added in the 1970s as a way to convince big-city lawmakers to vote for an expensive safety net for farmers. And for decades, it worked. That coalition is at risk of crumbling this year after House Democrats all but abandoned the negotiations.


COLLIN PETERSON: I didn't walk away. We didn't walk away. We were pushed away by an ideological fight I repeatedly warned the chairman not to start.

SNELL: That's Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, at a hearing last month. Peterson says he's worked with Republicans on every farm bill since the 1990s, but, this time, he can't promise that a single Democrat will vote for this bill.

But House Republicans have the backing of President Trump. They want strict requirements that recipients who are healthy and able to work spend time searching for jobs and getting training or volunteering. And they say voters agree. Republicans point to polls from the right-leaning Foundation for Government Accountability. The group's vice president for federal affairs Kristina Rasmussen says this support crosses ideological lines.

KRISTINA RASMUSSEN: You see 7 out of 10 Democrats supporting these ideas. Independents usually come in at 8 out of 10, Republicans 9 out of 10.

SNELL: But Democrats disagree. They say voters view food stamps as an essential part of the government safety net that Republicans are trying to dismantle. Stacy Dean heads the food assistance program at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. She says people who can work often use food stamps for just a short amount of time. And, she says, the number of people using the program is falling.

STACY DEAN: The enrollment in the program has been coming down. It's dropped several million people since the height of the recession and is projected to continue to decline to pre-recession levels.

SNELL: But this is an election year, and Congress just passed an expensive tax cut and two years of budget increases. And conservatives like Meadows say voters are frustrated that Republicans haven't done enough to scale back the government.


MEADOWS: They're tired of talk from members of Congress. It is time that we actually do something.

SNELL: That leaves the House farm bill under attack from both sides. Without votes from Democrats, House leaders need votes from conservatives like Meadows to pass the bill. Either way, this version of the bill is dead on arrival in the Senate, where Democrats have more sway. Agriculture committee chairman Pat Roberts says he's working on his own bill.

PAT ROBERTS: Regardless of what happens in the House - and I hope they can get something passed - the Senate is working towards a bipartisan bill 'cause we have to have 60 votes.

SNELL: The current farm bill expires at the end of September, all but assuring that the fight will continue right up until the next election.

Kelsey Snell, NPR News, the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHINESE MAN'S "ARTICHAUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.