NSAC's Blog

Congressional Hearings Kick Off Farm Bill Implementation Phase

March 1, 2019

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue speaking before Congress. Photo Credit: US News
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue (shown here) travelled to Capitol Hill this week to speak to Congress about implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill. Photo Credit: US News

This week, Congress started a new chapter in the 2018 Farm Bill process: oversight of the Department’s implementation efforts. The passage and signing of the new farm bill at the end of last year marked the conclusion of the bill’s “authorization phase,” and now that the fiscal year (FY) 2019 appropriations bill is finally in place, all eyes in the food and farm world have turned toward implementation and oversight.

This “secondary phase” allows all stakeholders (not just Congress and the Administration, but also farmers and food producing communities) an additional opportunity to shape the many programs and policies included in the final 2018 Farm Bill. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is tasked with implementing the programs and policies of the farm bill, while Congress is charged with overseeing and funding that process. Stakeholders, of course, are directly affected by the decisions that Congress and USDA makes, and should take advantage of any and all opportunities for engagement. Many important details are left out of authorizing legislation, which means that those decisions are left to the implementing agencies.

Oversight of the implementation of farm bill programs by Congress is critically important to ensuring that the intent of the legislation is followed. It is also important for farmers, ranchers, and other stakeholders to be involved in the implementation process – there will be many opportunities for stakeholder input on rulemaking and other administrative decisions – so that farm bill programs adequately meet the needs of their intended constituents – primarily farmers and those that support them!

A series of congressional hearings formally kicked off the farm bill’s implementation and administrative phase this week, with USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue making a trip to Capitol Hill. This marked the first time that the Secretary has come before a congressional committee since Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections. In the following post, NSAC summarizes the key takeaways from those initial hearings, and assesses what impact Congress’ and the Secretary’s statements might have on this next stage of the 2018 Farm Bill.

House Agriculture Committee Hearing

On Wednesday, February 27, Secretary Perdue was the only witness for a hearing before the House Committee on Agriculture titled, “The State of the Rural Economy.” The hearing was not specifically billed as a farm bill implementation and oversight hearing, but it was clearly a topic on many Committee Members’ minds. In particular, Committee Members pushed the Secretary to explain how the farm bill is (or isn’t) addressing the precarious state of the farm economy.

Within the discussion of the overall declining farm economy, the crisis that has been affecting the dairy industry took center stage. During the hearing, Secretary Perdue made a number of important announcements regarding the 2018 Farm Bill’s Dairy Margin Coverage program. According to the Secretary, premium refunds related to the ineffective Margin Protection Program from the 2014 Farm Bill will begin towards the end of April 2019. Sign up for the new Dairy Margin Coverage Program will begin in June 2019. In addition to the dairy crisis, concerns about the impact of the trade dispute with China and tariffs on American commodity exports were also top agenda items for several Members.

In addition to announcing target dates for the dairy programs, Secretary Perdue made a number of other announcements regarding implementation of farm bill programs. The Secretary announced that sign-ups for commodity programs is set to begin on September 1, 2019,  and that general enrollment for the Conservation Reserve Program will begin December 1, 2019. Additionally, tentative plans to develop regulations surrounding agricultural hemp production were also announced. The plans, which were cheered by many farmers and rural communities that have lost economic opportunities because of decades of prohibition, are said to be in place by the 2020 growing season.

Whereas the updates on the Dairy Margin Coverage Program and other farm bill programs were largely met with bipartisan support, there was one issue on which there was clearly strong disagreement – USDA’s proposed rule to make changes to the Supplementation Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) regarding benefits for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs). USDA’s SNAP proposal was included in the House’s draft farm bill, but was not included in the Senate bill or in the final conference package. Democrats in this week’s Committee hearing repeatedly criticized that proposal, which would make it harder for states to get approval to waive SNAP work requirements for ABAWDs. After the hearing, the Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture Democrat Collin Peterson (D-MN) went so far as to say “I’ll guarantee you it’s not going to happen,” regarding the proposal’s chances of moving forward.

Democrats on the committee also grilled Secretary Perdue about the Administration’s proposed effort to relocate and reorganize the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service. Specifically, Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Marcia Fudge (D-OH), and Jahana Hayes (D-CT) all expressed concerns that largely mirrored those raised by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and our allies since the proposal was introduced. Despite this widespread concern from Members and the broader scientific community, Secretary Perdue continued to defend the move in this week’s hearing, drawing on previous talking points that the move would save taxpayer dollars – though a specific cost-benefit analysis has yet to be released from the Department defending this claim.

Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry

After spending several hours on Wednesday in front of Members of the House Committee on Agriculture, on Thursday Secretary Perdue returned to the Hill to speak with their counterparts in the Senate. While the House hearing was more generally focused on the rural economy, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry hearing was squarely focused on farm bill implementation. Unsurprisingly, however, the state of the dairy industry and ongoing negative impacts of tariffs and the trade war repeatedly came up in comments from both Republican and Democratic Senators.

Over the course of the hearing, several Senators spoke to NSAC priorities on conservation programs and activities. NSAC would like to thank Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) for discussing with the Secretary how the new provisions of the 2018 Farm Bill will address water quality issues. All three Members spoke to the Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) initiative within CRP; additionally, Senator Ernst spoke about the important role that working lands conservation programs – including the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program – play in helping beginning farmers to address on-farm resource concerns.

Like their House colleagues, many Senate Democrats also expressed their displeasure with USDA’s proposed rule restricting SNAP work requirement waivers for ABAWDs. Senate Democrats went so far as to accuse the Secretary of attempting an end-around Congress, noting that the inclusion of related provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill was debated and those changes were intentionally not included in the bill. Senate Democrats also chastised the Secretary for announcing the SNAP proposal on the same day in December that the 2018 Farm Bill was signed into law.

Final Notes

NSAC will continue to monitor and actively report on the implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill and key engagement opportunities as the process moves forward. For a list of past and upcoming USDA “Implementation Listening Sessions,” click here. To learn more about key issues that NSAC is following, check out our most recent series of “deep dive” blogs, and sign-up for our weekly policy newsletter for regular updates.  

Categories: Farm Bill

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