WASHINGTON – The U.S. House on Thursday narrowly passed the farm bill, a sprawling piece of legislation that both benefits the agriculture community and funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
While the farm bill is historically bipartisan, Democrats uniformly opposed this version. They charged that Republicans forced through measures on the SNAP side of the bill that they could not accept. The vote was 213-211, with all of the Republicans from Texas backing the legislation.
Thursday's passage puts U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland, a step closer toward what he hopes will be his political legacy as House Agriculture Committee chairman.
“Today’s vote was about keeping faith with the men and women of rural America and about the enduring promise of the dignity of a day’s work," Conaway said in a statement. "It was about providing certainty to farmers and ranchers who have been struggling under the weight of a five-year recession and about providing our neighbors in need with more than just a hand out, but a hand up."
"I’m proud of what this body has accomplished, and now look forward to working with the Senate and the president to deliver a farm bill on time to the American people.”
But much work remains for Conaway and the bill's other supporters to get it to President Donald Trump's desk. The bill is almost certain to change from its current form.
The farm bill is the result of a decades-old strange-bedfellows alliance of members who represent rural areas and urban members who care about SNAP. The bill provides crop insurance and subsidies to farmers, but most of the funding goes towards SNAP.
The biggest change to this version of the farm bill is an increase of work requirements on the SNAP program – a move that enraged Democrats who voted against the House bill.
The Senate's farm bill passed out of committee on June 13 and is much more in line with the most recent farm bill, which passed in 2014.
This is the second time the House has voted on the farm bill this year. A previous attempt to pass it in May failed when some GOP members essentially held the bill hostage in a bid to force the House to address immigration.
Yet not even those who supported the bill were united in why they did so. While House Republicans like U.S. Reps. Joe Barton of Ennis and Ted Poe of Houston said they supported the bill to help Texas farmers, U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Dallas said he voted for the bill in spite of the aid farmers will get.
"I prefer to think of it as voting for the work requirement bill that unfortunately had the farm bill attached to it," Hensarling said. "I don’t like the farm bill. I say that as one who grew up working on a farm. I think it’s basically a form of welfare. But every good policy costs bad policy, and I voted for the good policy of the work requirement, which I think ultimately could be revolutionary in helping move people from lives of dependency to lives of independence. So anyway, it was an unenthusiastic ‘aye’ vote.”
What happens next with the farm bill is currently one of the biggest questions on Capitol Hill. It is hard to see how the two chambers can square away their differences, but members close to the negotiations remain optimistic. One possible solution to the log jam would be to pass a short-term extension that will move back the Sept. 30 deadline. Members could then pick it up during the lame duck session following this year's elections or next year under a new Congress – one that could be controlled by Democrats, depending on how various races around the country shake out.
But Conaway insisted Thursday that an extension won't be necessary.
"With all the uncertainty in production agriculture right now in rural America ... we’re going to get the farm bill done on time," Conaway said. "It would help alleviate just a modest amount of that anxiety.”
Trump has previously touted his strong support from farmers and other rural voters during the presidential election. Back in January, he said during a speech that farmers were "lucky" that they had the "privilege" to vote for him.
"We know that our farmers are our future," he added.
But back in Texas, farmers anxiously watch as Washington determines the future of their livelihoods, both through negotiations over the farm bill and the prospects of a potential trade war with China.