Burlington County Times

Conservative Revolt Over Immigration Sinks House Farm Bill

Four of New Jersey's five Republican House members were among the defectors. Rep. Tom MacArthur was the lone New Jersey Republican who voted in support of the measure, which drew opposition because of its proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Burlington County Times — May 18, 2018

By Staff and wire reports

WASHINGTON — In an embarrassment for House Republican leaders, conservatives on Friday scuttled a Farm Bill that combines stricter work and job training requirements for food stamp recipients with a renewal of farm subsidies popular in GOP-leaning farm country.

Hard-right conservatives upset over the party's stalled immigration agenda opposed the measure, which failed by a 213-198 vote. Some 30 Republicans joined with every chamber Democrat in opposition to the bill.

Four of New Jersey's five Republican House members were among the defectors. Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-3rd of Toms River, was the lone New Jersey Republican who voted in support of the measure, which drew opposition from Democrats and social service advocates because of its proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP.

The New Jersey Farm Bureau and several other agriculture advocates had encouraged New Jersey members to vote in favor of the bill because of its funding for federal farm programs important to New Jersey farmers.

The vote was a blow to GOP leaders, who had hoped to tout its new work requirements for recipients of food stamps. The work initiative polls well with voters, especially those in the GOP political base.

President Donald Trump also had endorsed the measure, tweeting Thursday night that the measure was a "strong Farm Bill" and "We must support our Nation's great farmers!"

Key conservatives in the rebellious House Freedom Caucus opposed the measure, seeking leverage to win procedural advantages in a debate on immigration next month. Negotiations with GOP leaders Friday morning failed to bear fruit, however, and the unrelated food and farm measure was defeated.

Conservative Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said some members had concerns over the farm bill, but said, "That wasn't my main focus. My main focus was making sure we do immigration policy right" and "actually build a border security wall."

Beyond the drama and infighting among Republicans, the debacle appears to make it even more likely that Congress will simply extend the current farm bill when it expires in September.

The farm bill, a twice-per-decade rite on Capitol Hill, promises greater job training opportunities for recipients of food stamps, a top priority for House leaders. Democrats are strongly opposed, saying the stricter work and job training rules are poorly designed and would drive 2 million people off of food stamps. They took a victory lap after the vote.

"On a bipartisan basis, the House rejected a bad bill that failed farmers and working families," said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California. "Republicans wrote a cruel, destructive Farm Bill that abandoned farmers and producers amid plummeting farm prices and the self-inflicted damage of President Trump's trade brinkmanship."

The two biggest changes proposed to SNAP benefits involve the program's work or job training requirements for so-called "able-bodied" recipients, as well as the program's income limit.

Currently, able-bodied adults without children between 18 and 49 are required to work at least 20 hours a week or participate in job training or volunteer programs in order to receive more than three months of benefits.

The proposed GOP farm bill would expand the work requirement to recipients up to age 59 and to adults with children ages 6 or older. It would also impose a stricter income cap of 130 percent of the poverty level — about $32,000 a year for a family of four — rather than allowing states like New Jersey to offer reduced benefits to those earning up to 185 percent of the poverty mark, or about $45,000.

New Jersey opponents had said both measures would cause thousands of New Jersey residents to lose the assistance.

MacArthur said he supported the measure because of its funding for programs that assist South Jersey farmers, including specialty crop grants that benefit blueberry and cranberry growers and research grants that assist the Rutgers agriculture programs.

The bill also included an amendment MacArthur authored clarifying that children in households impacted by the new work requirements should not lose their benefits if a parent fails to comply.

"Children cannot go to school and learn on an empty stomach — and they should not have to come home and worry about where their next meal is going to come from," he said. "My amendment is crystal clear: as we implement these changes kids are off limits."

Other supporters said the bill also included funding for states to greatly expand job-training programs, as well as other safeguards to prevent vulnerable populations from losing the nutrition assistance.

Liberal activists still blasted MacArthur for his vote, noting that he was once again the only member of New Jersey's House delegation to vote in favor legislation favored by GOP leaders.

"Once again, Tom MacArthur's shows he's an uncaring outlier in New Jersey who votes against the interests of his state and his constituents," said Ann Vardeman, New Jersey Citizen Action program director. "His vote comes just months after he voted for a tax law that gave away trillions of dollars in tax breaks to millionaires and big corporations. To protect these tax cuts, Tom MacArthur was willing take $20 billion in vital food assistance from hungry families across America, including at least 35,000 people here in New Jersey. It's appalling, and we're thankful that other New Jersey representatives showed much more sense in voting down the bill."

Farming advocates defended the congressman, arguing that the bill is important to local farmers.

"American households have the safest, least expensive and most abundant food supply of any nation in the world. This is in large part due to hard-working farm families but also strategic support from the federal government through the years," said Ryck Suydam, president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau. "We thank Rep. Tom MacArthur for his farm bill vote, which will continue the risk management, conservation, research and promotion programs that help our local New Jersey farmers."

North Hanover farmer Paul Hlubik said the bill provides an important safety net for existing farmers and financing for the next generation of producers, as well as federal funding for important state programs like Jersey Fresh and Jersey Grown marketing campaigns.

"Most importantly, this bill assists those who could not otherwise have access to healthy nutrition by offering a means to afford that good food while simultaneously providing the tools of personal prosperity by offering the training which leads to career opportunities," Hlubik said.

After the bill's defeat, House Speaker Paul Ryan called for a re-vote, but it's still unclear when that might occur. If conservative Freedom Caucus members continue to resist, lawmakers may opt to approve a short-term renewal of the existing Farm Bill programs before the current law expires.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, the chamber's filibuster rules require a bipartisan process for a bill to pass. There, Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, promises a competing bill later this month and he's signaling that its changes to food stamps would be far more modest than the House measure.

If two separate bills are approved by the chambers, a conference committee will need to meet to negotiate a compromise.

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