Farm bill conference report filed, text released
House and Senate agriculture leaders late Monday filed the conference report of a new five-year farm bill that is expected to come up on the House floor Wednesday or Thursday and on the Senate floor either late this week or early next week.
The bill, which is expected to cost $867 billion over 10 years, the same as the current farm bill, has been posted on the House Rules Committee website, but rules has not posted a meeting on the bill.
The bipartisan conference report, which continues most farm and conservation programs with only minor changes, has eliminated most controversial provisions in the House and Senate bills and seems headed for passage, perhaps by a wide margin.
The bill does not contain the stiffer work requirements for beneficiaries for food stamp beneficiaries that House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., had wanted to make part of a welfare reform package, but late Monday he issued a strong endorsement of the bill.
“Rural America is at the heart of our way of life,” Ryan wrote. “Our farmers, ranchers, and rural communities count on agriculture policy that delivers certainty and support, and this farm bill achieves that goal.”
Ryan recognized that the bill does contain some measures from the House and Senate bills to improve the integrity of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as food stamps is known, and to give Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue authority to tighten up on program management. On that point, Ryan added, “This bill strengthens work requirements for our federal nutrition benefit programs, and uses savings to better train and equip our workforce — reforms we have long sought to help more Americans move from welfare to work. Now we need to build on this, which is why it is important that this bill ensures Secretary Perdue can continue his work on this critical issue.”
Ryan also recognized the battle over forestry provisions that dominated the last days of debate over the conference report. It doesn’t contain some of the provisions that conservatives wanted to thin the forests and please logging companies. But Ryan said, “This bill will also help keep communities safe by reducing catastrophic wildfire risk and will provide more timber management tools at the state, county and tribal levels. I am thankful to Chairman Conaway and the members of the House Committee on Agriculture for all the work they have put into this legislation. This is a good day for American producers and families.”
Perdue, who is traveling in Hawaii, said in a statement that he is pleased with the bill and will urge President Donald Trump to sign it.
“I welcome the introduction of the farm bill conference committee report, and hope the Congress can approve this legislation expeditiously,” Perdue said. “This legislation maintains a strong safety net for the farm economy, invests in critical agricultural research, and will promote agriculture exports through robust trade programs. While we would have liked to see more progress on work requirements for SNAP recipients and forest management reforms, the conference agreement does include several helpful provisions and we will continue to build upon these through our authorities. As farmers prepare to make decisions about next season, I commend the leadership of the conference committee in producing a bill that can be passed before the year’s end. If Congress passes this legislation I will encourage the president to sign it.”
Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who has been regarded in conservative circles as an antagonist to conservative goals, emphasized the farm provisions in a news release. But she also noted that it avoided the “harmful” provisions such as the work requirements that advocates said would result in millions being thrown off SNAP because so many of them have employment in which the number of hours worked changes each week.
Stabenow said, “The final bill reflects a hard-fought bipartisan, bicameral agreement on a five-year farm bill to strengthen the diversity of American agriculture and support the 16 million jobs that power the food and farm economy.
“By working across the aisle, we overcame many differences to deliver a strong, bipartisan farm bill for our farmers, families, and rural communities,” she said. “The 2018 farm bill is a good bill for our farmers and everyone who eats.”
Perhaps equally as impressive as the lawmakers’ statements was the tentative endorsement from Robert Greenstein, president of the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
“While we are still reviewing the details, the conference agreement that Agriculture Committee leaders released tonight is promising,” Greenstein said. “The negotiators appear to have achieved a bipartisan compromise that maintains and modestly strengthens the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, ensuring that millions of struggling Americans will continue to be able to count on SNAP to help them put food on the table. This framework for compromise, which rejects harmful cuts and changes to SNAP, is the right approach.”
Organic and small farmers had feared how their interests would be treated in a Republican-dominated Congress, but the Organic Trade Association praised a provision that provided mandatory funding for agricultural research.
“This farm bill marks a key milestone for organic with $50 million in annual funding for the flagship Organic Research and Extension Initiative program by 2023, more than double the current funding level,” said Laura Batcha, OTA executive director. “This will ensure stable, baseline mandatory funding for the program, and will enable organic farmers to meet the unique challenges they face. The bill also includes important steps to modernize and speed up federal efforts to prevent organic fraud, to create a transparent marketplace, and to ensure that every stakeholder in the organic chain is playing by the rules.”
The bill’s changes to the crop programs in Title I are small compared with the kinds of changes that have occurred in some previous bills, but they are important for farmers. Farmers throughout the country will be allowed to update their yields if the national yields for their crops were higher from 2013 to 2017.
The bill would allow an increase in reference prices that determine farm subsidy payments, but only if market prices increase. As one House Agriculture Committee aide said Monday, that provision will not help farmers suffering from the current low prices because it would be triggered only by higher prices.
Farmers whose land used to be cropped but has been in grass for years will lose their subsidy payments, but they will be eligible for a new grassland conservation program within the Conservation Stewardship Program.
Sugar growers will get a 1 cent increase in their loan rate, which is likely to anger sweetener users because it would raise sugar prices.
A number of changes were made in the dairy program, leading House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., to call that provision the best part of the bill.
Rather than include the stricter payment limits that Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced in the Senate bill, the conference report includes the House provisions that formalize the eligibility of nieces, nephews and cousins of farmers for participation in farm programs if they prove that they are participants in the farm operation.
The bill continues the Conservation Stewardship Program rather than move it into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, as the House had proposed. The bill also increases the acreage under the land-idling Conservation Reserve Program to 27 million acres.
To pay for other programs, the bill changes what is known as the “cushion of credit” under which rural electric co-operatives got paid 5 percent interest from the Treasury Department when they paid their loans off early. Under the new bill, the rate will go down over several years to the regular Treasury rate.
Hemp is removed from the list of classified drugs. Hemp will not be eligible for Title I commodity programs, but it will be eligible for crop insurance.
A national laboratory network for animal disease and preparedness and a vaccine bank will get $300 million in mandatory spending with a permanent baseline.
The conference report re-establishes the position of undersecretary for rural development, which the Trump administration eliminated.
A House bill provision written by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that would have made it illegal for a state to establish production standards on foods sold in that state, such as California has done with eggs, was eliminated in the conference report.