- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Congressional Republicans fell short Wednesday on their last, best chance to tighten work requirements for people receiving public assistance, after Congress cleared the farm bill without the new rules conservatives had sought.

Despite President Trump’s calls for action, GOP negotiators said they couldn’t get Democrats to agree to the work requirements for food stamp recipients — and they said passing the $867 billion package of agriculture subsidies and food programs was too important to hold hostage.

The bill, sans work requirements, cleared the House on a 369-47 vote. It already passed the Senate by a similarly overwhelming margin and now heads to Mr. Trump for his signature.

Liberal lawmakers took a victory lap, saying they brushed back Republicans’ efforts to tighten food stamp rules.

“This bipartisan legislation does not contain the harmful provisions that would have cut nutrition assistance to those at risk of going hungry and threatened the environment,” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

And with his party poised to take control of the House next year, Democrats can head off those efforts earlier in the legislative process.

The final bill does include some accountability measures for the food stamp program. It authorizes a national database to bar people from claiming the benefits in multiple states and adds money for related work-training programs.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said the bill is about “empowering the individual.”

“By including reforms to encourage work and expand opportunity, we are moving our federal poverty programs in the right direction,” he said.

But the original House bill would have gone further by lifting the maximum age of able-bodied adult food stamp recipients required to work or train for 20 hours per week from 49 to 59. There would have been exceptions, including for recipients who have children under the age of 6.

Those were stripped from the final deal, and conservatives blasted their leaders for caving.

“At a time when the national unemployment rate is at a 50-year low, historic tax cuts are in place, and there are more job openings than job seekers, it’s inexcusable to not address broken and costly welfare programs in our country,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, a South Carolina Republican who was one of the “no” votes.

But House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway said Democrats wouldn’t accept the changes, and he didn’t want to make farmers the victims of the GOP’s work push.

“We made inroads wherever we could on important reforms,” the Texas Republican said. “And we worked to provide the strongest safety net possible for our nation’s farmers and ranchers.” Conservatives said they hope the Trump administration will step in to do what it can.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said his departments plan to issue a rule to allow states to experiment with the requirements for some recipients.

But Rep. David Schweikert, Arizona Republican, questioned why the administration was taking so long if they knew they could make some changes administratively.

“Why wouldn’t they have done this a year-and-a-half ago? That’s part of the frustration,” he said.

A coalition of conservative advocacy groups also cited the lack of changes to the food stamp program in an open letter to Congress this week criticizing the final product.

“To this point, the 2018 farm bill has been a huge missed opportunity,” the groups wrote.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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