Materials provided to House and Senate members of the conference committee on H.R. 2 the Farm Bill for their first meeting on September 5, 2018.
The Chairmen and Ranking Members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), Congressman Mike Conaway (R-TX), Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Congressman Collin Peterson (D-MN) are the principle negotiators on merging the two versions of the 5-year Farm Bill. Known as the “Big 4” they (and their staff) have been meeting since at least August 1 to hammer out legislative details of U.S. federal policies impacting farmers, conservation, rural development, nutrition, risk management, research and animal disease programs. Each of the Big 4 understand the gravity of the situation facing the farm economy and the need for the federal government to provide some certainty to farmers, their lenders and rural communities that may come through passage of the Farm Bill, namely;
- farmers are receiving the majority of financial blows from trading partner’s retaliation to the Trump Administration’s trade policies of erecting tariffs on foreign imported goods, and
- due to several years of low commodity prices coupled with outstanding debt, the farm economy has witnessed a decline in farm income of 52%, a total $60 billion since 2013.
But, even amidst the severity of the situation it remains uncertain if the Big 4 can overcome major fundamental challenges that exist in the two versions of the legislation. Consider the funding issues. The House version of the Farm Bill makes cuts in certain programs, of which those funds are re-directed into other policy priorities. For instances, nearly $800 million (over 10 years) is saved in the Conservation Title, mainly by eliminating the Conservation Security Program. Over $1.4 billion is saved in the Nutrition Title, mainly from changes to state performance indicators and workforce requirements. Just over $500 million is saved by eliminating the Biorefinery Assistance Program and the Rural Energy for America Program. These savings were used to bolster other programs like: Title I Commodity Price Loss Coverage Program, Conservation Title II, Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, Title VII Organic Agriculture Research & Extension Initiative and Title XI National Animal Disease Preparedness & Response. The Senate version of the Farm Bill has other ideas for commodity programs and maintains the Conservation Security Program and Bioenergy Programs.
In their last meeting in mid-September the Big 4 attempted to reach agreement on funding levels for each of the 12 titles in the Farm Bill. But an agreement could not be reached. This disagreement showcases just how far apart negotiators are on fundamental policy decisions for the Farm Bill. While some progress has been made, to date, no titles have been closed – meaning all titles of the Farm Bill remain open for debate.
Moreover, time is not on their side. Due to possibilities of inclement weather resulting from Hurricane Florence both the House and Senate adjourned early last week. The House is not scheduled to reconvene until September 25, but the Big 4 negotiators have committed to continue talks over the (House) break.
Earlier, the Big 4 negotiators achieved a consensus on a self-imposed deadline of September 30 to conclude negotiations on the Farm Bill. September 30 is the final day of the federal fiscal year and also the last day that programs under the previous (2014) Farm Bill are authorized. It is becoming increasingly clear that negotiators are too far apart on fundamental policies and funding issues to achieve their self-imposed deadline of September 30.
History is not on their side
The 1995 Farm Bill was not completed until 1996.
The 2001 Farm Bill was not completed until 2002.
The 2007 Farm Bill was not completed until 2008.
The 2013 Farm Bill was not completed until 2014.
Power and Politics
Amidst the policy divisions the political winds are shifting. The mid-term elections are 48 days away and history tells us that midterm elections are unfavorable for the party that controls the White House. Many in Washington think it is a forgone conclusion that Democrats will regain control of the House of Representatives albeit by a slim margin. Further, new polling data is now suggesting for the first time there is a chance Republicans in the Senate could lose their majority.
Congressional Republicans have not deviated from their legislative calendar to date. For the month of October, the Senate is scheduled to be in session for the entire month. The House is scheduled to be in session the first two weeks, October 1-12. Now that Senate Republicans are sensing political troubles, it is not likely the Senate will remain in session the entire month of October as beleaguered members will need to be back home campaigning.
After the mid-term election if Democrats gain control of either the House or the Senate, or both, it stands to reason that Democrats would want to have more control in shaping U.S. farm policy that such a political victory would deliver.
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