By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
While so much attention is focused on legal skirmishes at the White House and confirmation fights in the Senate, the House of Representatives is quietly considering legislation that would impact Alabamians in a far more meaningful way than all those other Beltway battles combined.
On the House floor this week is the Farm Bill, legislation enacted every five years or so to update and reauthorize the nation’s agriculture policies and the food stamp assistance program. It’s a big, complicated bill with a lot of competing interests, and Alabama’s point man on the Agriculture Committee, Congressman Mike Rogers, is hoping to bring home a win.
“It’s 42 percent of our economy in Alabama,” he said. “Most people have no idea agriculture is that big, but it is. It’s why I’ve stayed on the Agriculture Committee all these years – because it’s so important to our economy back home.”
In a phone interview from his Capitol Hill office, Rogers explains the importance of the Farm Bill in a pigskin parlance that most Alabamians will understand.
“What is the Farm Bill? It’s basically the rules of the game for a five year period time. Just like in a football game, you need to know how many yards for a first down, how many points for a touchdown, how many yards for a penalty – all the rules of the game.
“The Farm Bill is just like that. It lays out what the crop insurance programs will be, what kind of crops will be recognized in participation in various programs – all the rules. And farmers, just like any business, need to know the rules to decide what crops to put in and not put in for the next five years.”
The bill’s fate is anything but certain. Democrats are almost universally opposed to it, a departure from the past when the Farm Bill had more regional divisions than political ones. That has changed in the Trump Era, Rogers said, because Democrats are seeing most every bill as an opportunity to resist.
“This is my third Farm Bill. They are all contentious, but this is the first time it has been partisan,” he said. “Ever since we passed the tax cuts, Democrats have tried to stop anything else from passing that could be a win for President Trump.”
Among Democrats’ chief objections are changes to the food stamp portions of the bill. As written, the bill would increase work requirements for able bodied Americans in order to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, better known as food stamps.
“For the first time, we’re putting in some meaningful work requirements. Of course, we’ve excluded the elderly, the disabled, children and caretakers of children from those requirements. But, if you’re an able bodied adult and you’re going to receive food stamps, you have to either agree to work part time – and we’ll help them find a job – or go into a work training program, which we’ll help pay for. That’s a big deal.”
Some Republicans are holding out their votes as well. Members of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus are refusing to support the bill unless House leadership agrees to let a conservative immigration bill come up for a vote.
Among the other Alabama-specific Farm Bill provisions , Rogers is particularly championing ones related to land grant institutions and rural broadband internet.
“We’ve got great land grant universities like Auburn and Tuskegee. This bill provides meaningful support to help their programs continue to thrive.
“You know, we have a lot of rural communities that the private sector has a hard time bringing broadband into from a business standpoint. This bill cuts a lot of red tape and provides money to incentivize businesses to invest in those poorer rural communities and give them the technology they need to succeed economically.”
Most fundamentally, the Farm Bill provides a safety net for the nation’s producers allowing them to take significant risks planting each year without being completely ruined financially if the crops don’t yield what they should.
In the last Farm Bill, Congress moved away from direct payments to farmers toward a crop insurance program. Still, some conservatives are eyeing further cuts, a move Rogers calls “naive.”
“There’s some people that just believe that the government shouldn’t be doing crop insurance. It’s naive for some of these outside groups to take that position. That fact is, if we don’t have safety nets, we could lose our agricultural capabilities. We do not want to be left subject to other countries having to feed us. We just can’t let that happen, but it could if we lose the safety nets.”
The House is deliberating over how to proceed on debate and amendments on the bill. A fianl vote could occur as soon as this week.