On May 18, the House of Representatives failed to pass H.R. 2 – The Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, more commonly referred to as the farm bill, in a 198 to 213 vote. While every Democrat voted against the bill, it was ultimately thirty Republicans, comprised mostly of members of the House’s conservative Freedom Caucus, who broke with party ranks and voted against the measure. The last Farm Bill, which was passed in 2014, also failed the first time around which was a historical first.
In this case, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX-11), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and House Speaker Paul Ryan brought the bill to the floor knowing there would be no support from the Democratic caucus, because of their opposition to the welfare reform aspects promoted by the Speaker. These provisions included stricter work and job training requirements under the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The Conaway-drafted bill required “work-capable” adults ages 18 to 59 to work at least 20 hours a week, or spend an equal amount of time in job training or workfare, while also tightening eligibility rules. Democrats said the combination would push 2 million people off of SNAP.
The two GOP leaders assumed they could rally enough Republicans to support the measure to counteract Democratic opposition. Members of the Freedom Caucus, though, also wanted a vote on Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s (R-VA-06) conservative immigration bill before a vote on the farm bill. While a promise for an immigration vote in June swayed a handful of members, it was not enough. More centrist Republicans voted against the measure for a plethora of other reasons ranging from opposition to SNAP changes, price controls, as well as interest in their own more moderate immigration plan.
Congress has a daunting task to pass farm bill legislation before its September 30, 2018 expiration. Congress will recess for Memorial Day and reconvene June 4. The schedule is even more muddled with campaign events that will generally ramp up after Labor Day. The House and Senate are planning for seven and eight weeks of work, respectively, before the August recess. For perspective, Conaway’s now-failed legislation took over six months to put together.
That said, GOP leadership remains in good spirits despite the legislative stumble. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA-01) remained confident in a press conference May 22 saying, “We’re going to pass this bill.” This echoed Conaway’s statement that they would “deliver a strong, new farm bill on time as the president of the United States has called on us to do.” Even Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-NC-11) said his caucus believes there is still plenty of time to move on the farm bill before the Sept. 30 expiration date.
The next move on farm bill legislation may be made in the Senate. Senate Agriculture chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) states that he intends to start markup in the Senate the week after Congress comes back after Memorial Day. He is still optimistic that he and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) can write a bi-partisan bill as he has ruled out major changes to SNAP.