Thatcher, others: Farmers more active on farm bill, but lots of challenges
PHOENIX – Farmers will be more active in lobbying for the next farm bill than they were on the 2014 farm bill, but there are still many challenges ahead, Mary Kay Thatcher, who retired this week from the American Farm Bureau Federation, said Feb. 1.
“2014 was the worst time to write a farm bill because prices were so high,” Thatcher told the Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau annual meeting here. But they are more active now that prices and incomes have fallen, said Thatcher, who will join Syngenta in its Washington office in mid-February.
But Thatcher said the farm bill faces budget, policy and political challenges. A panel of farm lobbyists and Keith Coble, a Mississippi State University professor, also discussed the challenges facing the bill.
“We are in kind of a world of hurt in Washington” due to the deficit and the tax bill that will also cut government revenues, Thatcher said.
She said there are at least 37 programs in the farm bill costing $2.6 billion that will not have baseline funding, but that there will be pressure to continue those programs.
“We don’t get to operate from a flat baseline; we are at a $2.6 billion shortfall,” Thatcher said.
“There is a constituency for every one,” she added, noting the whole energy title lacks forward baseline funding.
In addition, farm leaders are asking for a variety of increases in spending, Thatcher said.
There are proposals for a total of $30 billion in new funding, she said, listing the following programs:
» $2.6 billion for unfunded programs
» $1 billion for cotton
» $1 billion for Agricultural Risk Coverage program
» $9 billion for dairy
» $3 billion to increase the Conservation Reserve Program to 30 million acres
» $1.5 billion for an animal vaccine bank
» $1 billion for animal diseases preparedness
» $8 billion to increase the wheat reference price to $6.50 per bushel
» $2.2 billion to double funding for the Foreign Market Development and Market Access Program
Farm bill spending is split 76 percent for nutrition, 7 percent for commodities, 9 percent for crop insurance, 7 percent for conservation and 1 percent for other programs, she said.
The crop insurance industry should expect challenges to the harvest price option, and proposals to reduce the ability of farmers to adjust their production records and to reduce premium subsidies by limiting income eligibility or limits on the subsidies, as well as reducing the amount paid for operating the program, Thatcher said.
During a panel discussion, Brandon Willis, Risk Management Agency administrator during the Obama administration, urged the industry to pay attention to President Donald Trump’s budget. Noting the Obama administration proposed cutting back on the provision that allowed farmers to get payments for prevented planting but Congress did not acted on it, Willis pointed out the Trump administration accomplished the same goal through administrative action.
“President’s budgets are somewhere between an annoyance and a real threat, but they can gain momentum over time,” Willis said.
Robbie Boone of the Farm Credit Council said he hopes the lending community “will come forward” to defend crop insurance as the most important program.
Farmers talk about taking the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program out of the farm bill or using budget authority from the nutrition programs for agriculture, but Thatcher noted that many more Americans benefit from SNAP than from the farm programs.
“I don’t want to pit 2 million farmers against 43 million food stamp recipients,” she said.
Thatcher said the delegates to the American Farm Bureau Federation convention voted for a resolution to support ending the link between eligibility for federal crop insurance subsidies and conservation compliance under certain circumstances, but Thatcher said she hopes commodity groups do not follow Farm Bureau’s lead because the link is vital to maintaining the support of environmental groups for farm programs as they now exist.
Assembling the votes to pass a farm bill in the House will be difficult, requiring support from Democrats as well as Republicans because there are 31 Republicans in the Freedom Caucus who are unlikely to vote for the bill.
There are 240 Republicans in the House, but without the Freedom Caucus, Republicans cannot assemble the 218 votes needed to pass the bill, she said.
To illustrate the vote challenge, Thatcher pointed out there are 34 congressional districts with more than 50 percent of constituents living in rural areas (communities of 2,500 people or less), making up only 7.7 percent of congressional districts, while there are 55 congressional districts with 100 percent of constituents living in urban areas, making up 12.6 percent of congressional districts.
Coble, in a separate presentation, said that if Congress does not act on the farm bill before August, he believes it won’t be passed this year. Thatcher agreed with him.
That leaves open the question of whether the Democrats will control the House and possibly the Senate next year.
“If we do not get it done during this Congress, and Congress flips, we have to see who are the chairs. Not getting done presents a larger challenge,” Jen McPhillips of the Marsh & McLennan Companies said during the panel discussion.
Willis said that the crop insurance industry has “taken for granted that things will work out, but they work out because of people who have been in place.” Noting the large number of retirements in Congress, Willis added, “Those people we cannot clone.”