Senate releases new farm bill
The Senate Agriculture Committee released the text of a new farm bill on June 8 that Republican and Democratic aides said is bipartisan, budget-neutral, and is intended to provide certainty and predictability for the nation’s farmers, who have experienced a 52 percent drop in income and a 40 percent drop in commodity prices over the past five years.
“This joint text shows that the chairman and the ranking member have a partnership that is deep and strong, shows that Democrats and Republicans can work together to put together big impactful legislation,” one aide said.
In a joint news release, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., emphasized their bipartisan unity.
“When ranking member Stabenow and I started this journey in Manhattan, Kan., last year, we made a commitment to make tough choices and produce a good, bipartisan farm bill. I’m pleased that today marks a big step in the process to get a farm bill reauthorized on time,” Roberts said.
“From day one, Chairman Roberts and I agreed we would craft a bipartisan bill that works for farmers, families and rural communities,” said Stabenow. “The 2018 bipartisan senate farm bill goes above and beyond to provide certainty for rural America and our diverse agricultural economy in Michigan and throughout the country.”
The bill is titled the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. Although its intention is to improve a range of farm programs and to tighten up on integrity in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the bill’s provisions are undramatic compared with many past farm bills, and certainly in comparison with the House Agriculture Committee’s Republican-only bill that includes tougher work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries and makes it harder to qualify for benefits.
The Congressional Budget Office has not finished scoring the bill, and aides were uncomfortable discussing specific numbers except to say it will be budget-neutral.
Roberts and Stabenow have announced the committee will mark up the bill on June 13.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said his intention is to pass the bill on the senate floor before the July 4 recess.
The path to a new five-year farm law is still uncertain because the house failed to pass the House Ag Committee bill and conservative house members have said they do not want to take up the bill until the internal house Republican dispute over immigration policy is settled.
In a briefing today, Republican and Democratic committee aides discussed the bill title by title. Here are highlights.
Title I — Commodities
Designed to be budget-neutral, this title maintains the Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage programs and will allow farmers to choose between them.
Some changes have been made to enhance the ARC program, which analysts have said farmers were likely to reject in its current form because it is based on farm incomes, which have been going down.
USDA will be directed to use crop insurance data rather than National Agricultural Statistics Service data in the program. The increased spending under ARC is only to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, not billions, an aide said. The PLC program is reauthorized with no change to reference price levels.
The commodity title also replaces the dairy Margin Protection Program with a new Dairy Risk Coverage program and raises the margin between costs and prices for which a producer can buy coverage from $8 to $9.
The bill adds $100 million in funding for the program in addition to the $1.1 billion increase that was added earlier this year in a budget bill. Farmers with 100 cows or fewer can get a 50 percent discount on the insurance and farmers with 450 cows or fewer can get a 25 percent discount.
The commodity title also lowers the adjusted gross income test for subsidy eligibility from $900,000 to $700,000. The committee draft makes no other changes to payment limits or rules on who is considered actively engaged in farming.
Title II — Conservation
This title maintains the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Conservation Reserve Program, but includes more flexibility and will allow an increase in the land-idling CRP from 24 to 25 million acres by lowering rental rates.
The bill also doubles the baseline for the regional conservation partnership, which leverages private dollars with federal dollars.
Title III — Trade
This title maintains the export promotion programs, but combines them. It also reauthorizes international food security programs.
Title IV — Nutrition
This title makes small changes to the SNAP program to increase program integrity and eliminates the bonuses paid to states based on their performance.
The title also enhances programs to encourage SNAP benefits to work, but through the pilot programs that are already in place.
There is a program to help health care providers use SNAP to help people with diet-related illnesses eat better.
Title V — Credit
This title updates Farm Credit Administration authorities and gives the farm credit system certainty for the future.
Title VI — Rural Development
This title reauthorizes rural development programs but saves money by restricting future deposits into what’s called “the cushion of credit account” used by rural electric cooperatives.
It reduces the interest rate on that account from 5 percent to one based on a five-year Treasury Department rate.
Title VII — Research
This title continues existing authorities and provides $200 million for the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, which was set up in the 2014 farm bill to leverage public money and private money.
Title VIIi — Forestry
This title extends forestry authorities and addresses wildfire mitigation and research and development under the Timber Innovation Act.
Title IX — Energy
This title reauthorizes the Agriculture Department’s energy programs.
TITLE X — Horticulture
This title addresses organics, the local agriculture market program for value-added grants and local food promotion and directs that these programs stay within their respective agencies at USDA.
It also addresses hemp production, a concern of McConnell’s. The bill ends hemp’s classification as a drug in the same category as marijuana.
Title XI — Crop Insurance
This title improves crop insurance delivery, addresses approval of new policies and has provisions for underserved producers.
Title XII — Miscellaneous
This title provides for a vaccine bank and measures against foot and mouth disease important to the livestock industry, and funds some of the 39 programs that did not have permanent funding by consolidating them.
Programs for local farms, farmers markets, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers would have permanent baselines as would organic research, aides said. ❖