WASHINGTON — With four delegation members serving on either the U.S. House or Senate’s Agriculture committees, Georgia is well represented as the pivotal farm bill begins to take shape.
Lawmakers are in the early stages of drafting a measure that will provide a five-year framework for federal spending to support farmers, boost the agriculture industry and help provide food for poor Americans.
The current legislation is set to expire in September, and members are hopeful they will have a new plan in place by then to run through 2028. But partisan divides are already evident in how lawmakers describe their priorities, including among the four Georgia lawmakers involved in the discussions.
Democrats will be looking for ways to increase spending from the $867 billion package signed into law in 2018.
Conservatives, who are looking for ways to reduce the federal budget in general, say the farm bill might also have areas for savings or could be reprioritized in ways that more directly benefit producers.
U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, the sole Republican from Georgia on the House Agriculture Committee and its vice chairman, said changes are needed to nutrition components that account for 76% of farm bill spending. Most of that goes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for low-income Americans, informally known as “food stamps.”
Inflation at grocery stores means SNAP benefits don’t stretch as far as they used to, said Scott, a Tifton Republican. But he wants the government to do more to reduce the rolls of people on SNAP, mainly by enforcing work requirements for childless adults who don’t have disabilities that prevent them from holding down a job.
“We have plenty of money in this country to take care of people who can’t work,” Scott said. “We don’t have enough money in this country to take care of people who simply choose not to work.”
The federal government estimates that 41.2 million people benefit from SNAP, or about 12% of the U.S. population. In Georgia, the participation rate is slightly higher at 15%, or 1.6 million people.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, estimates that nondisabled adults between the ages of 18 and 59 make up about 10% of all SNAP beneficiaries. Most are either working low-wage jobs or in between jobs, the center said.
Democrats say any reductions in SNAP are a nonstarter as they begin negotiating with Republicans on the farm bill. But the new GOP majority in the House may push for changes, which could set up a showdown with the Senate, where Democrats are in control.
“If we ever needed SNAP, we need it now,” said U.S. Rep. David Scott of Atlanta, who is the top-ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. “Food prices are going off the chart. And so I’m going to work on that and make sure no SNAP cuts are taking place. Not under my watch.”
U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, who in addition to serving on the House Agriculture Committee is also the top Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee for agriculture, has a similar stance. So does U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Five years ago, when the farm bill was also up for debate, Warnock was an activist and pastor speaking against Republicans’ efforts then to reduce SNAP benefits. He even got detained after one protest, he said.
Warnock lobbied to join the Agriculture Committee after being elected in January 2021 because he understands the importance of what is considered the state’s oldest and largest industry. But Warnock said the farm bill is also important to Georgia residents who rely on nutrition benefits to feed their families.
“Food security is something I’m very concerned about coming out of this pandemic,” the Atlanta Democrat said. “And I’ll be doing everything I can to defend it and push against the kind of work requirements that really in my mind represent a hoax and a distraction.”
Warnock and the other Democrats list priorities of their own, such as boosting funding for agriculture and agribusiness research at historically Black colleges and universities, and boosting grant funding for farmers and ranchers belonging to groups that have historically faced racial or ethnic prejudice.
Bishop, who lives in Albany and represents rural southwest Georgia, also wants the farm bill to provide resources to farmers who have been affected by natural disasters such as tornadoes and hurricanes. Some businesses in his district are still recovering from the effects of 2018’s Hurricane Michael.
“My objective is to make sure that this farm bill has sufficient risk management tools and safety nets so that regardless of what kinds of natural disasters may occur ... that the form that (help comes in) will be flexible enough to at least allow our producers to have a safety net,” Bishop said.
There is room for bipartisan efforts in areas such as those that focus more directly on support for farmers and producers. Both Bishop and Austin Scott want the new farm bill to have updated price support measures that help offset declines in crop prices or revenue. Scott also would like to expand crop insurance, especially for specialty growers such as Georgia’s pecan farmers.
There are also members of both parties who want to see the package update the types of foods that people receiving SNAP benefits can purchase. For example, hot items at grocery stores such as rotisserie chicken and prepared deli food are generally not eligible. But “junk food” items such as sodas and potato chips are.
Scott said he is open to working across the aisle with Democrats on new standards that expand access to pre-made healthy food but limit the use of food stamps on items with limited nutritional value.
“Why can’t we have an honest discussion about the fact that we’re spending a tremendous amount of money on what we call nutrition,” he said, “when the reality is we’re prohibiting the purchase of nutritious food and allowing the purchase of foods that are anything but nutritious.”
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