Ag Secretary Confident Trump Will Help Push Farm Bill Across Finish Line

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, shown in Denver in April 2018, said he believes the farm bill will be passed before the September deadline.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, shown in Denver in April 2018, said he believes the farm bill will be passed before the September deadline.

Esther Honig/Harvest Public Media

The farm bill traditionally is a bipartisan effort, but House Republicans’ proposed changes to the main federal food-aid program in this year’s version has struck a nerve. To move it through efficiently, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue says he’ll appeal to President Donald Trump.

“Well, obviously, he’s a big person to rely on and when he puts his shoulder to the grind there in Congress, then typically things happen,” Perdue said said Friday in Denver at at a symposium on water conservation.

The House Agriculture Committee introduced their version of the 2018 farm bill in early April, and passed it April 18 without any Democratic support. In it are stricter work requirements for millions of low-income Americans who are on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Conservatives argue expanding work requirements will help SNAP recipients find employment and become self-sufficient, but Democrats have said the requirements would punish people who struggle to find work.

This isn’t a new debate: A push to expand work requirements nearly derailed the farm bill in 2014. But this time, Republicans are looking to up the maximum working age to 59 and include parents whose kids are older than six.

Perdue said the changes are worth pushing for, regardless of the contentious atmosphere it’s created.

“I think it’s entirely appropriate that when people are enjoying the generosity of the American taxpayer is that they should do something in return and that is learn how to work and get a job,” he said.

Former ag secretary Tom Vilsack said that while states could be doing a better job of preparing SNAP recipients for work, these individuals often face a number of challenges.

“They may be dealing with a substance abuse problem that they’re overcoming. They may be a veteran who’s having a little trouble readjusting,” he said at Friday’s symposium. “And sometimes it becomes very difficult to get those folks connected to work.”

Vilsack, who was part of the Obama administration, also noted that 44 percent live in a home where someone works.

While some states have pilot job-training and assistance programs in place, funded by the 2014 farm bill, developing the infrastructure to handle millions of SNAP recipients could be challenging. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan think tank, estimates an effective job-training system for SNAP could cost $1 billion a month nationwide, while the House Ag Committee’s bill has budgeted $1 billion annually.

Vilsack said he hopes lawmakers will look to the states’ pilot programs for inspiration.

“I hope they don’t do something that appears to be a large program but isn’t completely thought-out and ends up not being successful,” he said.

Side notes

  • China tariffs: Perdue said he’s optimistic Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer will be successful in their negotiations with China this week. The two are scheduled to travel there this week. “For many years, China has just done what they wanted and not played by the rules and it’s time to call the question on that,” he said, adding that only the sorghum tariff has taken effect out of the 128 imports China said it plans to tax. 

  • NAFTA: Perdue acknowledged that time for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement is running out. After that, Canada and Mexico will face tariffs on steel and aluminum. Still, Perdue said he’s optimistic that NAFTA can be renegotiated. “Ambassador Lighthizer’s been very busy obviously, but we believe there’s a deal to be made,” he said.

Follow Esther on Twitter: @estherhonig

Story source: Harvest Public Media