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Democrats decry House vote that separates food stamps from farm bill

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 11, 2019: WASHINGTON – By denying the food stamp program its traditional seat at the farm bill table, the Republican-led U.S. House – in a tight 216-208 vote on Wednesday – angered Democrats and set up a potential food fight with Senate negotiators.

Not one Democrat voted for the five-year agriculture bill, which was separated from the food and nutrition segments after the House defeated the combined farm bill last month. Not since the early 1970s have the farm and nutrition elements been split. The Senate’s bill, passed earlier, combines both.

The stripped-down version barely attracted enough GOP votes to pass, and House leaders promised to develop a second bill – to be considered later – that would reauthorize the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and related food programs.

The House tactic caused a party-line fissure in the St. Louis region’s delegation. U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, alleged that “House Republicans voted to increase hunger in America,” while U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, said the bill “provides hard-working farm families with the stability they need to plan for the future.”

While U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, accused House GOP leaders of “playing foolish games with our farm economy and our working poor,” U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, said that – even thought be would have preferred the original bill that combined farm and food stamp programs – the stripped-down version would still help “our family farmers and provide much-needed certainty to the agriculture sector.”

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, supported the farm bill but was not available for comment immediately after the vote.

Clay and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, were among the Congressional Black Caucus members – most of whom represent urban districts – who protested the abandonment of a decades-long legislative balance by removing food and nutrition programs from purely agricultural programs such as crop insurance.

“For four decades, supplemental nutrition has been an integral part of the farm bill,” said Clay, arguing that “hunger and food insecurity is a real danger for many families who are still struggling to make ends meet.”

He added: “It is outrageous that Republicans have the nerve to tell hungry children, the rural poor, seniors and the disabled that while this country can afford to preserve subsidies for corporate farms, it can’t afford to help the most vulnerable put food on the table.”

But Davis, a member of the House Agriculture Committee whose district stretches from Collinsville to agricultural areas of southern Illinois, told reporters after the vote that such assertions are “dead wrong."

“We weren’t able to get a bipartisan bill through the House” – which Davis backed – that combined farm and nutrition programs. Even if the House is unable to pass a separate bill on SNAP and other programs, he contended, “those programs are mandatory and we’re going to continue to spend on them until we can figure out a way to put some good structural reforms in place” in those programs.

Enyart, an Agriculture Committee member whose district includes East St. Louis as well as large agricultural areas of southwest Illinois, took issue with that analysis, noting that the Illinois Farm Bureau opposed the House-passed bill.

“Today’s shortsighted approach jeopardizes the future of crop insurance and has torn apart a valuable coalition of interests that have stabilized the southern Illinois economy for decades,” Enyart said.  “I am also skeptical about how this bill will be reconciled with the Senate bill.”

That remains an open question. After Wednesday’s vote, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., called the House approach “a major mistake opposed by over 500 farm and conservation groups.”

Noting that the Senate has passed bipartisan farm bills for two straight years, Stabenow said that “if the House is serious about supporting rural America, they need to pass a comprehensive farm bill like the Senate bill that passed with broad bipartisan support.”

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said, “Republican leadership in U.S. House is so incapable of bipartisan compromise, that it's only able to pass a partial farm bill, that's opposed by every farm group in the country, on a strictly party line vote.

“I hope when the House and Senate negotiate a final package, the result is closer to the Senate's bipartisan approach-which cut billions of dollars more from the deficit, boosted jobs in rural America, reformed the food stamp program, and protected our farmers and ranchers.”

President Barack Obama’s administration also slammed the House approach, which would face a likely veto if not altered in a joint House-Senate conference committee.

“The bill does not contain sufficient commodity and crop insurance reforms and does not invest in renewable energy, an important source of jobs and economic growth in rural communities across the country,” said a statement by the Office of Management and Budget.

“Legislation as important as a farm bill should be constructed in a comprehensive approach that helps strengthen all aspects of the nation. This bill also fails to reauthorize nutrition programs, which benefit millions of Americans — in rural, suburban and urban areas alike.”

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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