Help the farmers or help the poor?
The farm bill House lawmakers will consider Wednesday forces vulnerable Republicans in contested House races in largely rural districts to make a difficult, perhaps politically lethal choice between the two constituencies.
Reps. David Valadao of Hanford and Jeff Denham of Turlock are California Republicans from such areas. Democrat Hillary Clinton won their districts in 2016. They’re districts that are largely rural with high rates of unemployment and poverty but also rely on Washington’s farm subsidies to help agriculture.
So while most of the farm bill is a continuation of the last one – its main effect in the two districts is providing subsidies for cotton farmers – it also contains what could be political poison as it would impose new restrictions on users of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP.
The bill, sponsored by Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, would require able-bodied adults from ages 18 to 59 who receive food aid through SNAP to find a job or attend job training classes for about 20 hours each week or else lose their benefits. SNAP is the largest federal food assistance program, providing credit for low-income households to buy food, which was formerly known as food stamps.
Neither Valadao nor Denham have commented publicly on the bill. Valadao’s office said he was unavailable to comment Monday. He’s a member of the appropriations agriculture subcommittee, which makes decisions on spending.
Denham’s office did not return multiple requests for comment. He’s a member of the House Agriculture Committee, which plans to formally write the legislation Wednesday.
“You have this minor tweak to subsidies, but a huge disruption to SNAP,” said Josh Sewell, a senior policy analyst at fiscal watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense said. “It’s a tricky situation, especially for these two members.”
Democrats are eager to make that point. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Califonia, who represents a district adjacent to Valadao’s, called the Republican effort “disappointing” and said it would put his colleagues like Valadao and Denham in an “awkward position.”
“This is fraught with creating a partisan farm bill, and the farm bill has traditionally been one of the most bipartisan things that we do here,” Costa said.
Both Republicans have huge numbers of constituents who use SNAP benefits, according to county-by-county data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2011, the latest year available. Counties represented in whole or in part by Valadao had nearly 467,000 food stamp participants in 2011 and by Denham’s had about 183,000. That’s higher participation than more than a dozen entire states.
Sal Russo, a California-based Republican political strategist, said the SNAP issue represents a great opportunity that Republicans tend to miss.
“It’s a mistake Republicans make – most poor people want to be rich, they want to get off welfare,” said Russo, a co-founder of the conservative Tea Party Express.
He said that getting people off food assistance is more compassionate than increasing money for welfare programs. “Republicans tend to stay away from that, and they shouldn’t,” he said.
Asked if Valadao and Denham were making that mistake, Russo said they’ve embraced tightening requirements for SNAP in the past and said he imagines they feel the same now, despite silence on the bill so far.
Sewell said the SNAP provision has made this farm bill particularly messy. “I’m glad I’m not one of these members” he said.
The farm bill must be renewed every five years and expires in September.
The House version gives more subsidies to cotton farmers than the 2014 bill, Sewell explained, but doesn’t include many changes from the last bill other than SNAP work requirements. Cotton is a major farming product in Valadao’s district and a small portion of total product in Denham’s.
While House members will have to vote on the bill — potentially a vote Democrats can use against Denham, Valadao and others — a Senate version is more likely to become law, and isn’t expected to include the SNAP provisions.
“I’m not sure why they’re doing this,” Sewell said of House Republicans. “I’m not seeing the upside.”