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What to Watch When Congress Comes Back

Katherine Miller

August 22, 2018

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Paws Up Resort by Ken Goodman Photography
Photo: Ken Goodman Photography

In her latest dispatch, our vice president of Impact Katherine Miller looks ahead to the fall’s hectic legislative period, and details potential Congressional moves that could involve a new Farm Bill, a government shutdown, and more.

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Summer is rapidly coming to an end—for some, the school year has already begun—and while Congress worked through much of their traditional summer vacation, we still don't have closure on most of the appropriations bills (a.k.a the legislation that funds the government), the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, or even the Farm Bill.

That means we're all in for an eight-week sprint to the midterm elections on November 6, with the end of the year following fast behind. It will also mean that everything we've been watching, waiting, and working towards around America's food economies and global trade interests will be part of a massive legislative push.

With things moving so quickly, the news will be awash in acronyms, rumors, and conflicting reports. Knowing that it all could get confusing, here are the most important things to watch out for after Labor Day:

  • Accelerated legislative pace: the House of Representatives has 19 work days scheduled between September 4 and October 12, when the House is expected to adjourn in the lead up to the midterms. While the Senate is supposed to work more days, the limited House schedule means legislation will have to move quickly.
  • Contentious Farm Bill debate: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) hopes to bring the Farm Bill to the Senate floor immediately after Labor Day. Right now, advocacy groups are anxiously awaiting the results of the Farm Bill Conference Committee, which includes nine Senators and 47 House members. The most contentious negotiations will focus on attempts to impose new work requirements on people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP). The House bill would require able-bodied beneficiaries of the SNAP to work 20 hours a week to get support. The Senate bill does not include the new work requirements, and if conferenced legislation provides for changes to SNAP, it will likely face an uphill battle in the Senate due to a lack of Democratic support.
  • Voters oppose changes to SNAP: as Congress debates any modifications to the SNAP program, voters have weighed in via a poll by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for a Livable Future. According to the new research, “almost two-thirds (61 percent) of voters said that they were opposed to reducing funding for SNAP, more commonly known as Food Stamps. Among those opposed, over 73 percent said that they were ‘strongly opposed’ to cuts.”
  • More to Farm Bill than SNAP: while SNAP will be the focus of most advocates, the Farm Bill also includes several other provisions important to farmers across the country. One involves moving hemp from the controlled substances list and reclassifying it as an agricultural commodity. This could have a positive impact on many states, including Minnesota and Kentucky. The Farm Bill also touches a host of other priorities including support for beginning farmers, credit, organics, trade promotion, horticulture, research, and international food aid.
  • Potential government shutdown over spending and immigration: Congress has failed for more than 20 years to pass all the bills that fund the federal government (also known as appropriations bills). Instead, Congress has repeatedly depended on a series of continuing resolutions to avoid lengthy government shutdowns. This year will bring more of the same, as both the House and Senate rush to avert a shutdown before the 2018 fiscal year ends on September 30. One of the most significant issues likely to derail budget negotiations is immigration reform and President Trump's demand that any reform be contingent on the government spending money on a border wall.
  • Midterms matter: with the entire House of Representatives up for re-election (including 62 hotly contested seats), 35 Senate seats up for grabs, and 39 gubernatorial elections on the docket, the 2018 midterm elections are expected to be a significant factor in ongoing legislative negotiations. Congressional leadership, regardless of party affiliation, want to make sure that their members have accomplishments to point to on the campaign trail—this is especially true of members in states dependent on agriculture, and will put extra focus on Farm Bill negotiations. Any legislation not completed by the time Congress adjourns in the fall could be considered by a lame-duck Congress.

These are just a few of the things that matter for good food policy advocates this fall. Now is the time to track the news and make our voices heard on issues that matter, especially SNAP and the Farm Bill.

If these matter to you, check out Food Policy Action to find out how your member of Congress votes on these issues. For more information, follow us at @JBFChefAction and subscribe to our newsletter.

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Katherine Miller is JBF’s vice president of Impact. Find her on Twitter.