Farm bill panel: Senate bill or bust
A panel of nutrition, farm and environmental advocates said that Congress should pass the Senate version of a new farm bill this year, but if a House-Senate conference committee adopts many provisions in the House bill their groups will oppose the conference report.
At a news conference entitled “No farm bill is better than a bad farm bill,” Monica Mills, the executive director of Food Policy Action, said, “This morning we have come together to emphasize how important it is to move the 2018 farm bill forward this year. But we’re not talking about just any farm bill for 2018 — we want to see a farm bill that is good for the Americans we represent.”
Mills and other speakers emphasized that the House version of the bill had barely passed that body on only Republican votes, while the Senate bill passed with a 86-11 vote.
Mills also noted that FPA’s scorecard on how members of Congress vote on food issues has become increasingly partisan.
As the groups held the news conference, the bill appears stalled. A conference committee between the House and the Senate has been established, but no titles of the bill have been finished and both houses of Congress have left Washington until Nov. 13.
The “Big Four” leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees who are in charge of the conference have said they will stay in touch by telephone in this period, but three of them — Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn. — are running for re-election on Nov. 6. Only Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., is not up for election this year.
Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group said the Senate farm bill would protect the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, local food programs, and conservation programs while the House bill would cut all of them.
“Congress should pass a farm bill in 2018 and get the job done,” Faber said. “The bipartisan Senate farm bill provides a pathway for a bill.”
That statement was less than a full endorsement of the Senate bill, and Faber acknowledged that EWG has worked on five farm bills but never endorsed the conference report. Faber added that the Senate version of the 2018 bill “represents the best farm bill” of the ones that EWG has worked on.
Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council said “Congress is at a crossroads. One is the easy path to follow what the Senate has done. It may not have been the bill we would have drafted ourselves … but it is a serious compromise.”
A bill with many of the House provisions cannot pass the Senate and is a formula for not passing a bill this year, Olson said.
The House bill, Olson said, would repeal the Clean Water Rule, undermine pesticide protections, reduce the power of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, allow “unfettered” logging and grazing, weaken low-income children’s access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and open land with conservation easements to mining and mineral exploration.
Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said the House bill would cut conservation programs on working lands by $5 billion, but focused on what he considers the positive provisions of the Senate bill: the Local Agriculture Marketing Program which combines several current programs, the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach Program, which he said would give minority farmers “a permanent seat at the farm bill table,” and stricter payment limits.
NSAC, which represents smaller, environmentally conscious farmers, does not want cut to SNAP or environmental riders, he said.
“We want a bill this year and we want it based on the Senate bill,” Hoefner said, not one “splitting the difference with some horrendous provisions in the House bill.”
“The onus is on the House chairman to decide he really wants a farm bill done.”
Hoefner also said that Conaway, the House chairman, may prefer debating about the bill than reaching agreements because the provisions he wants cannot pass the Senate.
Mike Lavender of the Union of Concerned Scientists said that his group is grateful to Roberts, Stabenow and Peterson for “fighting for that good farm bill.”
Although questions have been raised about whether Congress will be able to finish the bill when members come back after the election, Lavender said, “We believe there is still time this year to deliver a bill this year.”
Ellen Vollinger of the Food Research & Action Center, which lobbies on SNAP, as food stamps is now known, said, “The farm bill is the time to strengthen SNAP, not cut it or weaken it.”
The House bill “would cut SNAP benefits by nearly $20 billion over 10 years, taking food out of the refrigerators and off the tables of millions of low-income people in rural, urban and suburban communities across the country,” she said.
“There is still time to get a good farm bill. The Senate farm bill provides the constructive path forward,” Vollinger said.
In response to a question, Olson of NRDC acknowledged he is worried that Congress may focus on preserving SNAP and allow some of the House environmental riders to be included in the conference report.
But Hoefner noted that the Senate has insisted on leaving riders off appropriations bills this year.
The panel resisted requests to comment on what an extension or a 2019 farm bill would look like, but Hoefner said he believes a 2019 bill would look a lot like the Senate bill. The problem with waiting, he said, is that there are 39 programs that have lost their authorization or funding. An extension could revive them but it would have to contain language reauthorizing them, he said.
Hoefner also acknowledged that farmers may not be putting a lot of pressure on Congress to pass the bill this year because they are so focused on the tariff battles that have led to low commodity prices.
Vollinger said that no one on the panel has “a crystal ball. We are just going to keep our eye on what is on the table, what gets proposed.”