Conference committee negotiations over this year’s farm bill have reached an impasse because the ranking Senate Democrat wants to wait until December to complete them, Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs., said Thursday (Oct. 4).
Farm bills are huge pieces of legislation covering topics ranging from agricultural subsidies to food stamp policies. They are renewed every five years. The current bill expired Sept. 30.
Westerman said in a phone interview that U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., prefers to wait until that month. He said Stabenow’s objections have included adding provisions for window planters and allowing medical doctors to prescribe fresh fruits and vegetables. Westerman said Congress should not wait that long to complete action on the legislation. He said farmers are making decisions on next year’s crop plantings now.
“There’s a lot of planning and management that goes into the great agriculture system that we have in America today, and uncertainty doesn’t help them out at all, so we need to get this farm bill done as soon as possible,” he said.
Westerman represents the 4th District in southern and western Arkansas. He is one of 47 House members along with nine senators serving on the conference committee tasked with ironing out differences between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill. Also serving on the conference committee are U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro., who represents eastern Arkansas’ 1st District, and U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.
Members of the House of Representatives left Washington at the end of September, but Westerman said they could return to vote on the bill. The Senate is still in session considering, among other issues, the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
Stabenow is serving as the Democrats’ front person on the farm bill and is one of the so-called “four corners” with the most influence over agriculture policy. Those four include the chairs and ranking minority members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. She was a co-author of the Senate bill.
The House version requires many Americans receiving food aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to work 25 hours a week or enroll in job training programs. The previous farm bill required able-bodied Americans ages 18-49 with no dependents or disabilities to work at least 20 hours a week or participate in qualifying activities. The House version would broaden the number of Americans affected by the work requirement to those up to age 59 as well as those with children ages 6 and older.
“We thought that would probably be the sticking point, but we can’t even sit down and talk about that with the Senate right now,” Westerman said.
The SNAP program served more than 42 million Americans in fiscal year 2017. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that about 1.2 million fewer people per month could access those benefits by 2028 if the House version passed.
Westerman, who is Congress’ only forester, said the House version includes provisions of his Resilient Federal Forests Act, a version of which has passed the House twice but has failed to pass the Senate. Westerman has argued that the bill would allow Congress to engage in more proactive forest management. Among the provisions included in the Farm Bill is one allowing environmental assessments rather than full environmental impact statements following a triggering event. That provision would speed the process, he said.
Another provision would allow the U.S. Forest Service to evaluate the impact of not taking action. Westerman said Stabenow has argued the bill should not address forestry policy.
Stabenow’s office did not respond to request for comment.