As of mid-April, Congressional ag leaders on both sides of the political aisle appeared no closer to finishing a 2018 Farm Bill. In a North American Agricultural Journalists news conference, not one House or Senate ag committee leader would rule out extending the 2014 Farm Bill.
House Speaker Paul Ryan’s recent retirement announcement casts even more doubt on the likelihood of a new farm bill anytime soon. With the prospects of the U.S. House of Representatives switching to a Democratic majority, the “same old, same old” farm bill might be held over until a host of amendments on conservation and food security can be tacked on a new bill.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who has worked on six previous farm bills and is chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, acknowledged that agriculture is “in a rough patch — farm income down 52% from five years ago,” a very different scenario than what led to the 2014 Farm Bill. He was hopeful the Senate ag committee could mark up its farm bill version in the next several weeks.
Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, released the House’s farm bill proposal just two days after the NAAJ conference. However, approval by both houses still would be a long way down a rocky, pot-holed political road. The biggest roadblock could be controversial changes to the Nutrition title – SNAP or food stamps in particular, asserted ag committee member Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn. While Conaway, House ag chair, was holding SNAP details close to vest, one provision to make mandatory work requirements a part of the nutrition title hasn’t been negotiable, Peterson says. Conaway wasn’t available for comment.
“The federal government can’t defer responsibility for this to the states without screwing up," Peterson says. “And there’s not enough money for state training to make it happen. Even some Republicans would vote against it; otherwise, they’ll lose their elections. Why they would jeopardize the farm bill with this is beyond me.”
Both ag committees are trying to find solutions that don’t cost money. Reason: The Congressional Budget Office’s baseline for the 2018 Farm Bill is $112 billion less than less for the 2014 Farm Bill.
One may be putting a cap on 80% of base for the Conservation Reserve Program, Peterson says, and reducing payments on re-enrolled land. In Iowa, for instance, that might cut payments in half. With an 80% cap, he added, nobody with good farmland would enroll.
Another proposal might be to keep prime farmland out of CRP. Trouble is, there’s no single definition of what’s prime farmland according to Peterson. One certainty is that there’ll be no net funding reductions to the nutrition title.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., notes that with the current trade and tariff situation, she didn’t foresee farm bill funding cuts. Changes in the dairy program are already underway thanks to the omnibus spending bill. She expects Margin Protection Program payouts to begin this summer.
The existing farm bill’s marketing section has provisions for international trade disputes. While there’s talk of resurrecting Commodity Credit Corporation storage loans, Stabenow says, “We’d have to look carefully at the implications.”
Cotton is still a challenge. Another challenge is being able to come up with the resources (money) to do all that’s wanted under the conservation title. Some 40 different bills — would-be amendments — want into it.
She, too, questioned whether a farm bill markup would happen in April. And she wouldn’t rule out an extension of the 2014 Farm Bill.
“It would be a huge mistake to pass a partisan bill out of the House — very bad,” Stabenow adds. “Our [Senate Ag] committee is bipartisan. That’s the only way you can get 60 votes in the Senate.”