April 20, 2018
The farm bill is a near trillion dollar, 600-plus page legislative package that governs all aspects of the American food and agriculture system and comes up for debate only once every five or so years. With the current farm bill expiring at the end of September, the farm bill reauthorization process has officially kicked off here in the nation’s capital, and the House is the first out the gate.
On Wednesday, April 18, the House Agriculture Committee “marked-up” and passed Chairman Mike Conaway’s (R-TX) draft farm bill by a vote of 26 to 20 – all Republicans voted to support and all Democrats voted to oppose the bill. And while the Committee was successful in passing its version of the farm bill (albeit on a strict party line vote), there was no real markup nor substantial debate over the policies put forth in the draft bill. The draft bill came out just days before the scheduled markup, it did not go through regular order through markup in the various subcommittees and then on to the full committee, and it went through the full committee in the shortest amount of time ever for a farm bill — hardly a stellar case of democracy in action.
Amendments in Play
Only 22 amendments to the draft bill were considered by the Committee during the five-hour long markup, all offered by Republicans. Among the amendments were: three dealing with horses, cats, and dogs (including whether or not we should eat them); two seeking to have the government tell consumers about how they should view biotechnology; one regulating industrial hemp production; one on algae; two requiring reports to Congress; and one authorizing the government to recognize centennial farms.
The majority of the amendments filed were lumped into a “Manager’s Amendment” and approved together by a voice vote of the Committee. Included in this package was a positive, substantive amendment led by Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL) to restore the petition process with respect to which substances are allowed for use in organic farming. This amendment was supported by the organic industry and reversed a weakening provision in the draft bill.
Aside from the Manager’s Amendment, only one amendment was individually debated and voted on during the entire markup. The so-called interstate commerce amendment, which will lay the groundwork for eliminating hundreds of democratically passed state and local food and agricultural laws and dismantling states’ ability to promote local agricultural development, was offered by Representative Steve King (R-IA) and passed by a voice vote, after a substitute amendment to protect state’s rights offered by Representative Jeff Denham (R-CA) was defeated 12-33.
Unlike typical farm bill markups, no amendments were offered by Members on either side of the aisle to correct the very serious deficiencies of the Committee’s draft bill.
Champions Speak Out
During the five-hour debate, members of the Committee focused primarily on the changes made to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, and the impacts these policy changes would have on our country’s most vulnerable communities. The bill is estimated to cut some two million people out of the anti-hunger program while also mandating more severe work requirements and establishing a new multi-billion dollar food stamp work training program to be administered by the states. The SNAP package of cuts and stringent work requirements is a career-long political objective of House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) who just recently announced his impending retirement.
While the Nutrition Title took up most of the air time during markup, Members voiced their opposition to other parts of the bill, including conservation, renewable energy, beginning farmers, and rural development. We applaud the Members who spoke up in opposition to the serious flaws, harmful policy changes, and draconian funding cuts included in the Chairman’s draft bill.
House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) made two things crystal clear in his opening statement: this is a very flawed bill, and the bill’s problems go well beyond the Nutrition Title. He mentioned specific concerns related to the absence of funding for rural development and energy programs, and the lack of adequate investment in beginning farmers.
Representative David Scott (D-GA) spoke about the urgency around investing in beginning farmers, including his disappointment that the bill fails to scale up funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program in order to achieve permanent baseline, as proposed by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act, which he has co-sponsored.
Representative Tim Walz (D-MN) spoke both about his disappointment in cuts to working lands conservation programs and also the lack of investments and a national strategy to support the next generation of farmers. As one of the lead champions of both the bipartisan Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act and the SOIL Stewardship Act, the Congressman vented his frustration that the innovative policies put forward by those bills weren’t considered or included in the Chairman’s mark.
Representative Marcia Fudge (D-OH) was one of the most outspoken champions in defense of conservation programs, and during debate over the Conservation Title, articulated her deep disappointment with the proposed cuts and consolidation:
“I am deeply disappointed that the conservation title remains the target for funding cuts. Of most significant concern is the fact that the bill eradicates the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). The Chairman’s press materials claim the bill is prioritizing working lands conservation by ‘folding the best features of CSP into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).’ This is simply untrue. The bill eliminates all of the core components of CSP, and in claiming to fold CSP into EQIP, cuts funding for EQIP and CSP combined by nearly $5 billion over 10 years. CSP and EQIP are separate programs for a reason – they each have unique roles to play in enhancing the sustainability of American agriculture.”
Representative Fudge also mentioned her disappointment that the innovative monitoring, evaluation and reporting proposal she put forward with Representative John Faso (R-NY) in the Healthy Fields and Farm Economies Act, was not included in the draft bill.
Representative Ann Kuster (D-NH) echoed Fudge’s comments, and stressed that CSP and EQIP are very different programs, serve very different purposes, and should be kept separate in the farm bill.
Representative Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ) made similar comments on the cuts to conservation.
Representative Cheri Bustos (D-IL) spoke about how this bill is a missed opportunity for Rural America. She expressed her deep disappointment in the $500 million cut from rural development programs:
This is a step toward killing jobs and undermining entrepreneurs and shifting money away from small towns. The rural economy needs our attention – not just one more kick when it’s down.
Bustos also pointed to the evisceration of payment limits and accountability measures in the Commodity Title of the bill. By jettisoning over 30 years of precedent on commodity subsidy controls, these changes will allow for unlimited farm subsidies for the nation’s largest mega-farms and lead to accelerated land and farm consolidation. The Congresswoman noted the irony in these changes relative to the new requirements and limitations that the bill puts on SNAP recipients.
During markup, Ranking Member Peterson announced that a letter from Committee Democrats had just been sent to the White House recommending that rather than the Administration developing its own ad hoc farmer assistance package in response to Chinese tariffs on U.S. farm products (part of the Chinese response to the White House placing tariffs on Chinese steel), that resources should instead be added to the farm bill to allow Congress to develop a more permanent response to the trade-related pressure placed on already low commodity prices.
Next Steps on the Farm Bill
Now that the House Agriculture Committee has passed its draft of the farm bill, The Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R.2) heads to the House floor for consideration and debate. The House is not expected to take up the bill until the week of May 14, though possibly a week earlier or a week later. While in years past, floor debate has created an opportunity for members who don’t serve on the Agriculture Committee to weigh in and propose amendments to improve the bill, it is uncertain how House leadership will govern debate on the bill and how many amendments they will allow.
In order to pass the House, the farm bill will need at least 218 members to vote in support of the final bill. If every single Democrat votes against the bill, as seems likely at this point, that will leave 237 Republicans – 32 of whom are members of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus whose vote on a nearly $1 trillion spending package is far from guaranteed given their historic opposition to farm programs. There are another roughly 30 GOP Members who are more moderate, predominantly from the Northeast and West Coast with a scattering elsewhere, for whom voting for large SNAP cuts, unlimited farm subsidy payments, huge cuts to working lands conservation, and a direct attack on state and local home rule on food and agriculture law is not without some significant political risk.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Capitol Hill, the Senate Agriculture Committee is picking up the pace on negotiations and working on its own version of the next farm bill, which the Chair and Ranking Member have repeatedly said will be bipartisan and highly unlikely to include any of the extremist measures in the House bill. While a date has not yet been set for markup, it is expected that the Senate Committee will likely release its bill later next month.