At a minimum, there are three reforms that conservatives should expect in any farm bill.
1. Stronger Food Stamp Work Requirements
For conservatives to support any farm bill, Congress should adopt the House’s reforms to require more work-capable recipients of food stamps to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving benefits.
Today, despite the fact that the national unemployment rate recently fell to an 18-year low, 13 percent of Americans remain on food stamps.
The House bill would begin to correct this problem by establishing a work requirement for about 29 percent of work-capable, non-employed adults.
That represents a basic minimum needed to begin moving toward the goal of strengthening work requirements. Further efforts will be needed to strengthen those work requirements and to reduce marriage penalties.
Work requirements help the welfare system achieve its goal of reducing poverty and increasing adult and child well-being, while marriage is America’s greatest tool against child poverty.
Such policies are broadly popular: 92 percent of Americans support work requirements and 81 percent oppose marriage penalties in the welfare system.
2. Farm Subsidy Reform
Neither the House nor the Senate farm bill adequately addresses the out-of-control farm-handout system.
The House bill is particularly troubling and looks bad for conservatives who are trying to reduce dependence on food stamps while simultaneously maintaining and even increasing dependence on farm subsidies for farm households.
Those households have much greater median household incomes and net worths than non-farm households.
In fact, about one-third of commodity payments go to farms whose median net worth is $3.8 million, an amount that’s an astonishing 39 times greater than the median net worth of all U.S. households.
The Senate bill does have two very minor reforms. One reform would help to ensure that only people who are actually farming can receive subsidies, not people who by most accounts would be considered non-farmers.
Unfortunately, the House bill would actually expand the number of non-farming family members who can receive commodity subsidies to include cousins, nephews, and nieces.
That would save only $263 million over 10 years, but it’s at least a very tiny step in the right direction.
For conservatives to support any farm bill this year, it should include the minor Senate farm subsidy reforms (and reject the House expansion of subsidies) while also including some modest reforms, such as reducing the overgenerous subsidies that help farmers pay their premiums for crop insurance.
3. Repeal the Obama ‘Clean Water Rule’
In 2015, the Obama administration finalized its infamous “Clean Water Rule” that defined which waters can be regulated under the Clean Water Act.
This rule would regulate almost every water imaginable. For example, it would regulate certain man-made ditches and even regulate what most people would consider dry land.
The rule would even make it more difficult for farmers to engage in normal farming activities.
While the Trump administration has proposed to repeal this rule, there already is litigation challenging the administration as it tries to get rid of the rule and come up with a new rule that is consistent with both the Clean Water Act and the U.S. Constitution.
Any farm bill should put an end to this Obama water rule once and for all. After all, what better piece of legislation is there to address arguably the biggest regulatory obstacle for farmers than the farm bill?
The House recognized this and repealed the rule in its farm bill. The Senate failed to do so.
Now, the need for getting rid of the rule has become even more urgent. On Aug. 16, a federal district court in South Carolina issued an injunction that blocks a Trump administration rule that would delay enforcement of the Clean Water Rule.
That injunction will apply in 26 states, meaning the Obama water rule now applies in those states—but not in other states.
A conservative farm bill would not miss this opportunity to get rid of the rule, especially given the time-sensitivity in doing so.
Ideally, Congress would pass a conservative farm bill.
Imagine how bad it would look if the House caved on food stamps or Congress failed to consider the interests of taxpayers and consumers once again when it comes to farm subsidies.
If strong work requirements, significant farm subsidy reforms, and repeal of the Obama-era Clean Water Rule are not included in the farm bill, then legislators should pass a one-year extension. Major programs, including crop insurance and food stamps, would continue even if a farm bill or an extension were not passed.
In other words, conservative legislators should live to fight another day instead of making things even worse by establishing bad policy for the next five years.