Stabenow expresses concerns about farm bill process

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Thursday she is still determined to pass the farm bill before she retires at the end of 2024 but she also expressed concerns about the process.

“We have a multiple set of challenges,” Stabenow told the International Fresh Produce Association Washington Conference. She said that “despite” the leadership of House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., she is worried about the House because of the way that chamber has proceeded on the fiscal year 2024 agriculture appropriations bill.

Stabenow noted that the House Appropriations Committee passed an agriculture bill that would cut funding to the 2006 level, but that when it came to the House Rules Committee in July it couldn’t pass because some committee members said “it was not cutting enough.”

In the Senate, she said, “it is night and day” with a deal in agriculture that “was cut but was liveable.”

She noted that Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the ranking member on appropriations, were a team of women who reported out 12 bills “on time and on budget.”

Unfortunately, Stabenow said, the debt ceiling bill “cut money that we were going to use for the farm bill” and the Congressional Budget Office lowered the baseline funding for commodities.

“Now we are figuring out what we can do to add money to meet needs,” she said. “The challenge is finding a bipartisan way to agree on adding dollars.”

Noting that she had insisted on adding a specialty crop title to the farm bill, Stabenow said she wants to add more money for specialty crops in the next bill. She expressed pride that the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP) to increase access for low-income people for fruits and vegetables started in Michigan.

Stabenow said the No. 1 priority is more money for crop insurance, and No. 2 is more for trade assistance.

But she noted that she and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., the ranking member on the committee, have written Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to ask him to use the Commodity Credit Corporation to get more money for promotion of U.S. agricultural exports and international food assistance.

Stabenow said she and Boozman hope that Vilsack can come up with enough money to double the export assistance over five years.

“How do we fill the other holes?,” she asked.

Stabenow told the fruit, vegetable and flower industry that the Commodity Title covers only 20 crops and the crop insurance program covers 130 crops, but that there are more specialty crops that should be covered.

But she added that does understand the needs of the commodity producers covered under Title I. “I support the concerns of people whose input costs have gone up,” she said.

She also noted that spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is likely to go down because the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that due to the improving economy the number of people covered under that program should go from 41 million to 35 million.

“More access for fruits and vegetables is not only good for the individual and the family but for the industry,” she said. A study has shown that people on SNAP are eating more fruits and vegetables than other Americans, she said.

“The agriculture landscape is broader than the traditional definition that started with the farm bill. Make sure you know that, that people know that,” she said, adding that it doesn’t hurt “for you to have a little edge” in talking with members of Congress.

But Stabenow also noted that “while my heart and soul … is your priority list … we’re not going to get all of it.”

Stabenow said when they were negotiating about continuing universal free school meals after the pandemic, one senator told her “there’s no such thing as hungry kids,” but she declined to tell the audience his name.

Speaking to reporters after the event, Stabenow added, “expectations were set so high with this farm bill,” but the end result depends “on what happens in the House.”

“The world has changed,” she added. “Governing is the art of the possible. It is an unusually complicated year.”

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