House Ag passes farm bill, but big challenges remain
April 19, 2018
House Agriculture Committee Republicans passed a new five-year farm bill on April 18, but House Ag Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, faces big challenges in convincing a majority of the House to pass the bill and, if that happens, to get his food stamp proposals included in a conference report with the Senate.
The vote was all 26 Republicans in favor and all 20 Democrats opposed. Conaway told reporters after the vote that the bill will not come up on the House floor next week but that he hopes to bring it up on the House floor as soon as possible in May.
Conaway said that his immediate challenge is to assemble a majority of House members to support the bill. He noted that members would have next week and a recess week to analyze the bill. With all committee Democrats and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., opposed to the bill, it will be very hard for Conaway to convince any Democrats to vote for it. And so far, at least, it seems likely that house conservatives will oppose it either because they think that the changes to food stamps — formally the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — are not great enough or because they think the bill is too generous to farmers.
While the provisions making qualification for SNAP more difficult and requiring more applicants to work or be in job training to get benefits are the biggest issue for Democrats, there are signs that the farm program provisions are generating criticism.
In his opening statement, House Ag Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said that, while his "biggest concern with this bill is that we've gone off the ideological cliff on SNAP, when our members finally got to look at text on Thursday, it was clear to them that there are significant concerns beyond the nutrition title. Members started coming to me asking why there wasn't a baseline for animal disease prevention, Organic Research Initiative, and the Beginning Farmer & Rancher Development Program. There's no mandatory funding for scholarships at 1890 institutions, and $500 million from the Rural Energy for America Program was eliminated as well as killing the energy title. Folks were looking for funding for citrus greening research and doubling our market access dollars. They're raising concerns about the program consolidation in Title II, having no baseline for small watershed program and the decrease in the baseline in the out years. Even if we could miraculously fix the nutrition title, members still have other issues with the bill."
Peterson and other Democrats also wrote President Donald Trump a letter urging him to incorporate any expected spending on farmers to counter lost sales due to Chinese tariffs into the farm bill baseline so that farmers can have a better guarantee of support.
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But Conaway's biggest challenge in assembling a majority for the bill may be that floor amendments to change the sugar program, cut crop insurance benefits and impose payment limitations on farm subsidies could erode support among members from farm districts. For years, critics of farm programs have offered those amendments, but Democrats have helped Republicans stave off change because urban and suburban Democratic legislators wanted to maintain food stamps and, in more recent years, pass conservation measures that their constituents considered important.
Peterson has said that if the Republicans insist on keeping the food stamp provisions passed by the committee, he doubts he can deliver the votes to maintain the sugar and crop insurance programs or avoid stricter payment limitations based on farm subsidies.
Last week, Conaway said that anyone who eats owes a debt to farmers and that legislators with no farmers in their districts should vote for farm programs for that reason.
The American Sugar Alliance, which represents cane and beet growers, sent Conaway and Peterson a letter thanking them for their support. The growers added, "Opponents of this policy — driven by multinational food manufacturers — are aggressively attacking sugar producers' safety net, which is designed to counter foreign subsidies and unfair trade practices. These attacks come even though food makers have achieved strong profits by charging consumers more for sweetened products and pocketing the savings from sugar prices that are lower today than in 1980. We will depend on your leadership to beat back legislative attempts to further depress farmers' prices with heavily subsidized imports."
But the Alliance for Fair Sugar Policy, whose members include the Sweetener Users Association, said in a news release, "The House Agriculture Committee had an opportunity to serve a spoonful of fairness into the sugar program, but failed to do so. The inaction is confounding, considering the sugar program benefits only 13 sugar mega-processors, with zero benefit for American consumers. It's time for the family farmer and the families that depend on manufacturing workers to be at the center of the conversation around agriculture policy in this country. We look forward to a robust floor debate so members of the house have an opportunity to modernize the sugar program."
The crop insurance industry sent Conaway and Peterson a letter, saying, "We applaud the committee's continued support of crop insurance, and we look forward to working with you both to get a farm bill with a strong crop insurance title across the finish line this year."
But the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said the bill "undermines decades of work by farmers and advocates to advance sustainable agriculture and food systems. The bill also jettisons over 30 years of precedent on commodity subsidy payment limits and fiscal accountability measures. These changes will allow for unlimited farm subsidies for the nation's largest mega-farms and lead to accelerated land and farm consolidation. Additionally, the bill fails to invest what is truly needed to help the next generation of farmers and ranchers, and places no limits at all on crop insurance subsidies for the wealthiest operations."
Reaction from the Republican-leaning American Farm Bureau Federation was cautious.
"We look forward to working with members of both the house and senate to complete work on a bipartisan, bicameral bill that can be signed into law by the president before the current law expires," said Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall.
Roger Johnson, president of the Democratic-leaning National Farmers Union, said, "This bill is wholly inadequate for providing family farmers with the resources they need to endure the worst decline in the farm economy in decades. Congressional leadership's directive to withhold any additional support has hamstrung the committee's ability to address the six-year, 50 percent drop in net farm income. This bill lacks the improvements needed to provide sufficient farmer and consumer safety nets, it up-ends programs that improve sustainability, and it removes programs that aid the growth of fair and diverse markets for family farmers. Farmers Union is also deeply disappointed in the partisan nature of the house farm bill deliberations thus far. We urge members of Congress to make significant improvements to the bill prior to its passage." ❖