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FARM BILL CLEARS ONE HOUSE HURDLE, BUT OTHERS REMAIN

It was a long contentious week for legislators in Washington working on the next proposed five-year Farm Bill, a week that ended with a proposed bill making it out of a key committee but still facing a very uncertain future.

After more than 12 hours of discussion ending after Midnight on Friday, the House Ag Committee passed its version of a $1.5 trillion spending bill by a vote of 33-21. The final tally included four Democrats voting in favor, but otherwise was a party-line vote. That partisanship is likely to continue as the bill moves on to the Senate, and while partisanship has long been a part of the Farm Bill, much like everything else in Washington, the partisanship has intensified.

IN THE BILL

The bill, drafted by U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., increases spending for farm support programs and includes increased spending for Price Loss Coverage programs most typically used by southern growers of crops such as peanuts, rice and cotton.

House Republicans have a mandate to limit any additional spending in the bill, so there are proposed cuts elsewhere. This includes the Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC), which has been an active distributor of loans to farmers under both the Trump and Biden Administrations. In curbing spending elsewhere the House bill also crosses two so-called “red lines” drawn by Democrats: It freezes Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, or food stamps, and it reallocates $20 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act that was targeted to climate-friendly programs.

Rep. Thompson called his proposed farm bill a “restoration” of the farm safety net. “Over the past few decades, the farm safety net has lost its ability to protect those who are the backbone of our great nation,” he said in an opening statement to his committee on Thursday. “American farmers face natural disasters, take huge personal risk, and are at the whims of regulatory overreach. It is a privilege to deliver a farm bill that strengthens the risk mitigation measures available to producers, providing certainty in a time of volatility.”

DEMOCRATS’ REACTION

Critics of the farm bill proposal on the left have wasted little time in dismissing the House proposal. U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. and chair of the Senate Ag Committee, who is in charge of shepherding through a Senate version of the bill, sounded a diplomatic tone but gave no indication the bill itself was something Democrats would work with. “I’m glad that Chairman Thompson is working to move the process forward so that we can complete our work on the 2024 Farm Bill this year,” she said. Despite areas of common ground, it is now clear that key parts of the House bill split the Farm Bill coalition in a way that makes it impossible to achieve the votes to become law.”

The Environmental Working Group, a nonpartisan but left-leaning group that is often a foe of production agriculture, said the increases to farm safety net spending would bypass Midwest corn and soybean growers and instead go toward cotton, rice and peanut growers, predominantly in four states: Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Georgia.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack the former Democratic governor of Iowa, blasted the proposal, saying the bill would “rob Peter to pay Paul,” and calling supposed savings from cuts to the Commodity Credit Corp. “counterfeit money.” Vilsack said that non-partisan analysts call savings from CCC cuts dramatically overstated — which Thompson denies.

WHAT’S NEXT

The bargain on the Farm Bill has long been an agreement by Republicans to leave food stamp spending alone in exchange for Democrats leaving farm safety net programs untouched. It’s hard to see a path for a farm bill passing without that bargain. But it may not happen soon, or in time to prevent another extension to the current Farm Bill, which is already in a one-year extension ending Sept. 30. The American Farm Bureau Federation said it was “encouraged” by the passage of the House bill out of committee but noted the many steps still remaining.

The House Ag Committee’s bill may not hit the House floor for a full vote until September, Agri-Pulse reported this week. Meanwhile the Senate will have its own bill that will need to be reconciled with Rep. Thompson’s bill. Once we get into the Fall, elections will be near, and Congress could be distracted by other issues, and some may decide to take their chances by waiting until January, when the House, Senate and White House could be more favorable to their priorities.

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