Kentucky Republican Congressman James Comer says there are a lot of minor differences between the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill, but “the big gorilla in the room” is SNAP work requirements.
The first official 2018 Farm Bill Conference Committee meeting was on Wednesday and Comer is on that committee that will determine major farm and food policy legislation for the next five years. SNAP work requirements are in the House version, but not the Senate version. WKMS News and NPR have previously reported this is a controversial issue that would affect millions of Americans.
“For whatever reason, that’s been very controversial,” Comer said. He noted Democrats in the House and Senate are “100 percent” opposed to them and Republicans in the Senate are concerned they can’t pass the bill because of lack of support in both parties.
President Trump tweeted on Wednesday support for SNAP work requirements.
Congressman Comer supports the requirements. He said his support stems from concerns expressed in Kentucky’s first district. “The biggest complaint that I hear, when I talk to employers in my district, is they can’t find workers. Every community has help wanted signs in just about every other business. Clearly, there’s a shortage of workers in America. There’s never been a better time to get people off of welfare and into the workforce than today, in this strong economy, with the shortage of workers.”
A 2018 report from the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce says Kentucky is the seventh lowest state in workforce participation even though employment is increasing. Survey respondents said work experience and skills were major factors for not finding qualified workers. A U.S. maritime administrator said in July that west Kentucky offers a “fertile training ground” for addressing worker shortages in the river industries.
Comer sees the requirements as an opportunity to enact welfare reform and to get people who are able to work into the workforce. The House bill, he said, provides workforce development dollars to train people to get skills to fill the vacant positions. “And we’re not talking about engineers or anything,” he explained. “We’re talking about low, entry-level jobs, where there’s just a major shortage. At your restaurants, at your service industries, whether it’s in agriculture or tourism, whether it’s in the food industry, manufacturing.”
When asked about the differences between the work requirements in the House version and current requirements for ‘Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs),’ Comer said the House is trying to broadly expand – and have state and federal governments enforce – the work requirements. He said Medicaid statistics show able-bodied people are being incentivized to stay at home and not work. “What we’re trying to do is be clear and be strict with the legislation and with the language and see that it is actually enforced by the governing agencies.” (Kentucky Medicaid stats – SNAP benefits by congressional district)
Comer said Wednesday’s meeting is still, essentially, taking place with staff, going through the Farm Bill line-by-line on differences. He doesn’t believe there are many differences that can’t be resolved in agriculture or even the food parts of the Farm Bill, but “the big gorilla in the room is going to be work requirements.”
There’s no ‘consensus’ or ‘compromise’ on this issue, Comer said, “You either do the work requirements or you do not. There’s nowhere to meet in the middle,” with regard to that issue. He expects much posturing over this issue, but says at some point, someone will give in. He hopes a deal will be made by the end of next week, the conference committee report will pass and be presented to both the full House and Senate.
The most important part of the Farm Bill, Comer stressed, is the agricultural aspect with regard to ag policy. He said he understands what’s at stake in this bill for farmers, feels their pain, is aware of cyclical lows and a potential trade war. He noted that the bill provides an opportunity to purchase crop insurance, supports beginning farmer loan programs and provisions for environmental conservation programs.
On the Market Facilitation Program, which farmers can now sign up for, Comer said he hopes it’s “very short term.” He said it shows farmers that the Trump administration understands their short-term pain. “If he’s successful in renegotiating a bilateral trade agreement with China, then I think agriculture will benefit for many generations because of his efforts,” he said.
As for the Farm Bill: “We’ve got to do it before September 30th or we’ll be in uncharted territory,” Comer said.