CHICAGO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee on Thursday called for changes to the government’s food assistance program for the poor, in a package of long-awaited proposals for the next U.S. Farm Bill that could complicate its passage through Congress.
Among the proposed changes is a plan to raise the age to 59 from 49 for recipients to be required to meet certain work requirements in order to receive food stamps. About 40 million individuals currently benefit from the food stamps program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
The changes to SNAP, sought by conservative House Republicans and the administration of President Donald Trump, could make it difficult to get the votes needed from Democrats to pass the bill, however.
“It makes no sense to put the farmers and rural communities who rely on the Farm Bill’s safety net programs at risk in pursuit of partisan ideology on SNAP,” Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat and the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, said in a statement.
“This bill attempts to change SNAP from a feeding program to a work program.”
However, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway of Texas, a Republican, defended the proposals, saying they would help people “springboard out of poverty to a good paying job.”
Farm Bills are massive pieces of legislation providing funding for a broad swath of programs including food aid, crop subsidies, rural development, conservation and efforts to stem the opioid crisis in rural communities.
The last bill came into effect in 2014, two years behind schedule, after extensive congressional negotiations and partisan fights over food stamps.
Republicans have a slim 51-49 Senate majority and the bill will need 60 votes to pass.
Republican changes to the Nutrition Title, which provides food assistance to people with low income, derailed bipartisan committee negotiations earlier this year.
The Republican-controlled committee has also called for a $255 million-per-year budget to develop trade opportunities for U.S. agricultural exports.
The bill comes at a time when the farm sector, already reeling from years of declining incomes, is struggling to deal with disruption to trade flows, as Trump says he wants to renegotiate better terms for the United States with international partners.
The proposals do not contain fresh measures to protect U.S. farmers from the impact of the trade disputes on agricultural exports or imports. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is already equipped to deal with any fallout through the Commodity Credit Corporation Charter Act, which allows the USDA to borrow up to $30 billion to protect farm income, according to briefing materials provided by Republican committee staff.
Proposals for the new bill do include provisions to renew insurance programs that have proven popular with farmers.
One of the biggest changes in the previous bill was to shift away from direct cash payments provided to grain growers, to more market-based formulas based on actual crop prices.
Farmers had to choose between two options, the price-average formula of Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) or the more fixed-price formula of Price Loss Coverage (PLC), and stick with their choice for the five years of the farm bill.
The proposed House bill reauthorizes those programs. Analysts have said that many farmers might switch to PLC under the new. The new proposal modifies PLC by allowing reference prices for coverage to change when commodity markets rise, which would give higher payments to growers if prices rally.
For ARC, the bill calls for payments to be calculated based on actual yield data, as well as the county where farms are located and if fields are irrigated.
The bill now enters the mark-up phase, where members of the House Agriculture Committee can propose changes. House Speaker Paul Ryan said on Thursday he would like to see the House pass a bill this spring that includes changes to the SNAP program.
The Senate could consider a House-passed bill as is, with changes, or write its own.
Reporting by Mark Weinraub in CHICAGO; Additional reporting by Amanda Becker in WASHINGTON; editing by Simon Webb and Rosalba O'Brien