Via Jessie Higgins
President Donald Trump signed the 2018 farm bill Thursday afternoon, ending months of congressional negotiations over the $867 billion legislation.
The bill, which overwhelmingly passed both House and Senate last week, did so in part because lawmakers left out controversial work requirements for food stamp recipients that were originally included in the House version. Those requirements were a key sticking point during joint House and Senate negotiations — and were supported by Trump.
At the signing ceremony, Trump announced a plan to bypass the bill by having the U.S. Department of Agriculture impose stricter work requirements on food stamp recipients.
“I have instructed my administration to take immediate action on welfare reform,” Trump said. “Millions of able-bodied, working-age adults continue to collect food stamps without working or even looking for work. This action … was a difficult thing to get done. But farmers wanted it done, we all wanted it done, and I think in the end it’s going to make a lot of people very happy.”
The new requirements appear as a proposed rule by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The USDA already requires adults who do not have dependents to work at least three months every three years to collect food stamps. However, states can waive that requirement in areas where unemployment is 20 percent above the national average.
The Trump administration’s proposal would raise the waiver threshold, allowing states to waive the requirement only if unemployment is above 7 percent. That’s nearly double the national average of 3.7 percent.
“It’s called work rules and [the USDA] is able under this bill to implement them through regulation,” Trump said.
Some Democrats have decried the new rule and questioned whether Trump can use his executive powers to authorize it.
“Congress writes laws, and the administration is required to write rules based on the law,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate agriculture committee. “Administrative changes should not be driven by ideology. I do not support unilateral and unjustified changes that would take food away from families.”
The farm bill itself received bipartisan support and was largely celebrated by farmers and industry groups.
“It was a bipartisan success, something you don’t hear much,” Trump said at the signing ceremony, as he thanked the various people who worked to get the bill passed. “I want to thank the Democrats, who worked really hard on this bill, they really have. I may have to deny that I said that someday, but I won’t do that. You worked really hard.”
It took time to get there. The 2014 farm bill expired Sept. 30 before a joint House and Senate committee could reach a compromise. The House and Senate had passed strikingly different bills. After its expiration, dozens of programs went on hold.
Farmers and groups who rely on the programs feared they would languish another year if lawmakers didn’t compromise during this year’s lame duck session before a new House and Senate start in 2019.
Ultimately, the 2018 bill maintains most programs as they were before, said Erika Dunyak, a clinical fellow at the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic.
But many groups claim improvements.
“There are some really great things in this bill,” said Ferd Hoefner, a senior adviser for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
A group of programs that support beginning and small farmers, local foods and organic research — among other things — receive permanent funding in the bill, Hoefner said. Previously, those programs had to find new money to operate every five years when the farm bill renewed.
“We’ve been beating this drum for a long time,” Hoefner said. “It’s still a tiny slice of the overall farm bill pie, but it’s a permanent slice now, and it will probably grow over time.”
The bill gives greater support for the struggling dairy industry and it legalizes industrial hemp production.
On the conservation side, the bill directs more money toward soil health initiatives that will improve water quality and fight global climate change.
Not everyone was happy with the compromise.
One change in the 2018 bill allows farm subsidies to go to more distant relatives of farmers. In previous bills, a farmer’s immediate family — who did some kind of work on the farm — could apply for certain federal assistance. Those family members had to be parents, children, siblings or spouses. The 2018 bill expands that list to include first cousins, nieces and nephews.
Under the previous farm bill, such subsidies sometimes went to relatives who did not live or work on the farm, according to the Environmental Working Group, which has criticized the new provision. This new rule may enable more money to go to people who are not farmers, the group has said.
Supporters counter that it will encourage more people to get involved in farming.