Congress is running out of time to solidify its 2018 farm bill. The bill has a hard deadline of September 30 because its predecessor, the Agriculture Act of 2014, is set to expire on the last day of September. At an agriculture town hall in La Junta, Colorado, Congressman Michael Conaway (R-TX) joined Congressman Ken Buck (R-CO) to tell rural Coloradans that he's confident he and his colleagues will reach an agreement by the deadline.
The four principles leading the bill's design include the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate's agriculture committees respectively: Chairman Congressman Conaway and Ranking Member Congressman Collin Peterson (D-MN); and Chairman Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Senator Debby Stabenow (D-MI).
"I'm driven to get this done on time," Conaway said. That afternoon he had a scheduled flight to DC, where he'd be returning to continue to push for the bill's completion.
"There's a stunning amount of stress and anxiety in the production-agriculture world, rural America," said Conaway. He referenced the 50% drop in net farm income across the last five years and noted there was no real relief for commodity prices on the horizon. "Bankruptcies are up 39%," he said. "Suicides have increased among farm families, which really haunts me because of what's going on."
The pressure that multi-generational farmers are faced with dismayed Conaway. The congressman noted that family farms are typically resilient both in business and in family. But he also noted that the steep drop in farm income, plus the uncertainty that clouds the future in regard to the next farm bill, puts immense pressure on those farmers. "Well, my colleagues and I can get that off your backs," he said.
Uncertainty of the future farm bill's contents and future wages has indeed hung over farmers and ranchers. The 2018 farm bill suffered hiccups earlier this year. In May, the House failed to pass it.
Congressman Buck withheld his vote entirely then, as the conservative Freedom Caucus -- of which Buck is a member -- voted against that version of the bill. They did so because they didn't get the concessions they needed on a separate and unrelated immigration bill that also faced pressure in the House at that time. When that immigration bill eventually failed, the House returned focus to the farm bill. It was passed from the House to the Senate on June 21.
Conaway said that the sooner the bill can be finalized in the Senate, the sooner that farmers would have an idea of what the next five years will look like for agriculture. "We can show you what it is, right, wrong, or different," Conaway said. "Most folks would rather know what those next five years look like than to not know."
On the contents of the farm bill, Conaway explained that his colleagues and himself are reconsidering how much enforcement of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is required, and that the main change to the House's version of the farm bill was an aim to eliminate the CSP (Conservation Stewardship Program).
House Republicans faced harsh backlash for their approaches to SNAP in the farm bill's first round of voting in May. When it eventually passed in June, the provisions they proposed for SNAP were still in place.
The House version of the bill mandates that recipients of SNAP between ages 18 and 59 must work part-time or enroll in 20 hours per week of workforce training; such programs are to be funded with a budget of one billion dollars.
Conaway said on Monday that "there should be a link of work with that social welfare program." He pointed out that he wasn't calling to apply these limitations to recipients of the program that are physically or mentally disabled, children, or passed the age of retirement.
"The last time we were at 4% unemployment, the SNAP rolls were $17 million," said Conaway. "Today, SNAP rolls are $37,600,000. We've grown in population of the United States but we've not more than doubled the population," he said.
What Conaway didn't seem to account for was the adjustment of the average cost of living in the United States, or wage stagnation.
The last time national unemployment was at a rate of 4% was the year 2000. According to Conaway, SNAP rolls were 17 million dollars that same year. Eighteen years later, in 2018, they were over 39 million dollars. That given, there is an average increase of 3.7% in SNAP rolls every year.
This rate correlates to the average raise in rent costs through the same time period, which according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics averages out at 3.07% per year.
Meanwhile, average wage growth was mostly stagnant until 2009 after America began the slow recovery from its last recession. Even as the country found its footing, according to the Economic Policy Institute, for the last nine years the average year-over-year growth for private employees has been only 2.9%.
Basically, the discrepancy that Conaway pointed out -- the raised cost of SNAP rolls in 2018 compared to those of the year 2000 -- is not unusual. It correlates smoothly with the stagnant rate of wage growth and the ever-increasing cost of living.
Critics of the House's proposed changes to SNAP have been adamant that the supposed workforce training programs referenced in the farm bill have not been tested, and that a budget of one billion dollars is woefully short of necessary resources.
"Nationwide, it's estimated that we'll need to add an additional 3 million slots to workforce training programs," said Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) in April. "With just a billion dollars of funding, that's less than $30 per person per month -- that's a drop in the bucket to provide workplace training to anyone."
In regard to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Conaway's personal opinion is that tax payers aren't getting "their bang for their buck." He didn't provide further details as to how tax payers weren't getting their money's worth. According to the NRCS (National Resources Conservation Service), CSP is a voluntary program that encourages producers to address resource concerns by undertaking and managing conservation activities.
"Some of the original first contract CSP stuff does make sense and we're going to try to transition that into EQIP [Environmental Quality Incentives Program]," Conaway said. In this version of the bill, current CSP contracts would not be abrogated and would carry out their natural terms.
Congressman Buck didn't have much to say during the town hall. He thanked guests for attending, made his opening introduction for Congressman Michael Conaway, and moved to the side as Conaway addressed the audience. He did chime in to answer questions about COOL (Country of Origin Labeling) and to clear up questions regarding hemp farmers and banking.