Editor’s Note: You can find NSAC’s latest “Action Alert” and tips on how to engage in the farm bill process here.
The Senate is poised this week to consider its bipartisan version of the 2018 Farm Bill, which was passed by the Senate Agriculture Committee 20-1 earlier this month. The Senate bill, while far from perfect, was praised by many in the farm and food communities for its stark contrast to the partisan House bill (outlined in detail in previous posts), which barely passed 213-211 after eight members of the far right Freedom Caucus flipped from no to yes votes.
The full Senate will begin debate on the farm bill on June 25, and is expected to consider amendments and then vote on final passage before the end the week. Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill has broad bipartisan support and should pass easily. Once the Senate passes its bill, congressional leadership will convene a “conference committee” to negotiate the two chambers’ bills and put propose a final package to both the House and Senate. This is an important step toward finalizing the next farm bill before the current bill expires on September 30.
Given the wildly different approaches taken by the two chambers, however, agreeing upon a conferenced bill is likely to be an uphill battle. For the Senate, bipartisan agreement is likely to be a must, while in contrast House leadership has had no qualms with forcing through bills strictly along party lines. The two bills vary greatly on content as well as process: the Senate bill largely protects programs for working lands conservation, local/regional food systems, and beginning farmer and rancher programs, while the House bill eliminates, cuts, or diminishes the strength of many critical farm and food programs.
To get a better handle on what we can expect from future conference proceedings, we summarize each of the chambers’ bill progress to date, and provide top-level analysis of likely amendments in the final Senate bill.
House Farm Bill
On June 21, the House voted 213-211 to pass its version of the farm bill (H.R. 2). The troublesome bill was unchanged from the original version, which failed in May, making final passage extremely tight – 20 Republicans joined all House Democrats in voting no. The House bill was criticized broadly by leaders in the food, farm, and conservation movements for its failure to support family farmers, opening of new subsidy loopholes that facilitate farm consolidation, undermining of conservation programs and funding, and disinvestment in farm-to-fork initiatives. Making matters even worse, the bill also makes changes – strongly opposed by the anti-hunger community as well as many leading farm and food organizations, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) –to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that will increase hunger and hardship, and that are strongly opposed by the anti-hunger community.
The House farm bill successfully alienated so many key farm and food constituencies, that it failed to pass the first time it was taken to a floor vote (only the second time in history this has ever occurred). The key to passing the vote the second time was Republican leadership’s courtship of the conservation Freedom Caucus, may of whom had originally withheld support for the bill over what they saw as handouts to wealthy mega-farmers and low-income families alike. These members wanted further cuts to SNAP benefits, as well as the closing (instead of widening, which the passed House bill does) of loopholes that allow the nation’s largest mega farms – some of which are fully owned by non-farmer millionaires – to reap millions in federal subsidies each year.
Other Republican opposition to the bill was largely based on a calculated bet that leadership would trade concessions on immigration reform in exchange for a yes vote on the farm bill. That bet paid off when, following the H.R. 2’s initial failure, leadership committed to holding a vote on the immigration bill. That terrible immigration bill thankfully was defeated, but, as a result of it even being considered, eight Republican Freedom Caucus members switched their votes from no to yes during last week’s revote and the bill narrowly slipped through passage. Those eight members are on the record, despite their earlier interest in reform, as supporting the largest subsidy loopholes ever included in a farm bill, loopholes that will facilitate unlimited subsidies for the wealthiest operations and absentee investors.
Senate Farm Bill Consideration
Unlike the House, the Senate Agriculture Committee produced and passed a strong, bipartisan bill that advances many sustainable agriculture goals. On June 22, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) filed a procedural measure known as a cloture vote on the motion to proceed to the bill. This motion and a subsequent cloture vote on the bill itself allow the Senate to limit the amount of time that is allocated for debate before a vote is held.
While we expect the Senate to begin consideration of amendments sometime on Tuesday, it remains to be seen exactly how many will be voted upon. Given the fervent pace of activity on the Hill over the last few weeks, we expect that dozens will be filed, even if they do not all go to a vote. Typically, the majority and minority leaders will strike a deal on the number of amendments that will be allowed, as well as the number of votes (either 51 or 60) that will be required to pass each of them.
The goal for many Senators who will file amendments will be to get their proposed changes included in the “managers’ amendment.” This is a package of amendments that are agreed upon by the Chair and Ranking Member of the Agriculture Committee and then offered for a vote as a single amendment. The managers’ amendment to a bill almost always passes by voice vote.
Senate Amendments to Watch this Week
Three amendments that we expect to see a vote on the Senate floor tackle the often-contentious issue of critical farm subsidy reform. The first of these, an amendment to tighten the cap on commodity program subsidies and ensure that only farmers who are actively engaged in farming receive payments, will be offered by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA).
The Grassley amendment restores common-sense rules and fiscal integrity to the commodity program by maintaining the cap on annual commodity program benefits at $125,000 per farmer ($250,000 with spouse). The amendment also limits all farms to not more than one additional payee that is not actively working on the farm on a significant basis. These provisions will crack down on the hundreds of millions of dollars a year that the U.S. Department of Agriculture pays out in farm commodity subsidies to people that do not live and work on the farm. Many of these non-farmer owners are actually investors or pass through entities that funnel extra government checks back to the owner in an abusive arrangement created to avoid the payment limitation.
In addition to contributing $100 million to deficit reduction, the savings from the amendment will also provide $75 million for emergency food assistance, $25 million for on-farm renewable energy projects through the REAP program, and $10 million to provide loans to start-up rural micro-businesses through the RMAP program.
The second key amendment on commodity subsidy reform will be offered by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), who aims to reduce crop insurance premium subsidies by 15 percent for operations that make more than $700,000 per year in adjusted (net) gross income. The Durbin amendment would require millionaire farmland owners and investors to pay a little bit more of their own crop and revenue insurance costs; currently they rely on the taxpayers to cover the bulk of their insurance premiums. While this amendment does not take the additional, much-needed step of placing a cap on the total amount of insurance premium subsidy any one farm may receive in a given year, it is at least a good start. The Durbin amendment would introduce a means test to receipt of the fully subsidized insurance product, an important first step in reducing the structural inequities of current policy.
Both the Grassley and Durbin amendments have been offered and have passed with bipartisan super-majorities during previous farm bill cycles, but both have also failed to become part of the final farm bill.
Lastly, will also be watching for a third amendment would place an annual cap on the amount of premium subsidy available for any one farm. Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) are expected to introduce an amendment to place a $125,000 annual cap on premium subsidies, parallel to the $125,000 annual cap per person on commodity program subsidies. It is not yet clear whether this amendment will receive a vote or not.
NSAC strongly supports all three of these amendments and will be advocating for their adoption. For more information on how you can get involved to ensure that these important amendments are adopted, see our latest “Action Alert“.
What Comes Next
Once the Senate passes its version of the farm bill, likely by or before the end of this week, the House and Senate will move to establish a conference committee. Given that the House and Senate bills – as well as their approaches and overall visions for the 2018 Farm Bill – are so radically different, conferencing a final bill is likely to be no easy task. It is our hope that the conference committee will use the bipartisan Senate bill, which has much broader support in the farm and food communities, as the starting point for negotiations. NSAC firmly believes that by using the Senate bill as a template, Congress can produce a 2018 Farm Bill that advances the sustainability of agriculture, food systems, natural resources, and rural communities.