Climate debate bedevils farm bill as House panel holds vote

Source: By Marc Heller, E&E • Posted: Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Partisan fights loom for the legislation, which will be marked up in the House Agriculture Committee this week.

Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.).

House Agriculture Chair Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) said his bill is the result of input from members of both parties. Francis Chung/POLITICO

The House Agriculture Committee takes up the five-year farm bill this week, testing Republican Chair Glenn Thompson’s pledge to craft a bipartisan measure in a Congress marked by party-line divisions.

So far, the draft legislation the Pennsylvania Republican released Friday has reinforced those disagreements, despite his inclusion of many policy ideas introduced by or endorsed by Democrats.

The proposal — the first farm bill ever to exceed $1 trillion in projected costs — offers a sharp increase in funding for conservation but would eliminate the programs’ focus on climate change that Democrats won in the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022.

It would also revamp aspects of nutrition assistance programs in an effort to contain costs and, Thompson said, to steer initiatives toward healthier diets. Democrats are staunchly opposed to the idea, which they say would hurt the programs’ ability to reach people in need and dull the role of climate mitigation in the conservation programs.

The farm bill, generally passed every five years, authorizes programs at the Department of Agriculture including conservation, food safety, forestry and many public works projects in rural communities, as well as nutrition assistance for low-income households. The authorization ran out last year but was extended through Sept. 30.

Senate Democrats released their own framework for a bill earlier this month with climate change provisions.

Although a party-line vote to pass the bill at the House markup appears likely, policy groups said they expect a string of amendments that would address the contentious issues, also subject to partisan votes.

Urging bipartisanship

Reaction to the measure, called the “Farm, Food and National Security Act,” has fallen along predictable lines, with conservation and environmental groups saying the moves on conservation could stymie efforts to address both the damage of climate change and farmers’ opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Other organizations have praised specific policy ideas such as conservation easements that keep land in farming or forestry, and Republican lawmakers have started lining up behind it.

All around, organizations have urged a return to bipartisanship.

The bills are “really just dramatically different,” said Rebecca Riley, food and agriculture director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The NRDC worries that without focusing conservation programs on reducing greenhouse gas emissions — as the Senate farm bill framework from Democrats does — the country will lack a plan for agriculture’s response to climate change, Riley said. “Protecting that is really important.”

Like the Senate framework from Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chair Debbie Stabenow, Thompson’s draft would move unexpended money from the IRA’s conservation title to the farm bill, totaling between $13 billion and $14 billion. The money would stay in the same programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

If Stabenow’s version prevails, the conservation programs would maintain climate-oriented IRA funding, plus the regular farm bill funding that allows for farm practices without that requirement.

Stabenow told reporters last week that even with the climate guardrails, the great majority of conservation projects farmers already take on would be eligible for funding and that her frameworks isn’t at all restrictive.

The National Farmers Union, which leans Democratic, praised the Thompson draft’s enhancements to subsidized crop insurance, which it said would provide farmers better risk management and protect more acreage against weather-related losses, for instance.

But the NFU said changes to the nutrition and conservation sections will be needed if the bill is to gain support from both sides of the aisle.

“We urge the committee to avoid nutrition program provisions that would harm the most vulnerable among us and to build upon popular climate-focused conservation tools that help farmers mitigate the impacts of climate change,” said NFU President Rob Larew in a statement. “These changes would broaden the coalition we know is needed to pass a final bill.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation, a bigger farm group with a more conservative tilt, said it was “taking a deep dive” into Thompson’s draft ahead of the markup.

“We hope to see the Senate Agriculture Committee’s version soon so we can move forward with getting the farm bill passed,” said AFBF President Zippy Duvall in a statement. “It’s too important to wait. America’s families are counting on Congress to get this done.”

Price tag questions

The measure’s likely cost remains fluid headed toward the markup. Republican committee staff members told reporters there are ongoing conversation with the Congressional Budget Office and the House Budget Committee about what Thompson believes is tens of billions of dollars in long-term cost miscalculations by the CBO. Farm bill cost estimates run for a decade, although the bill is rewritten every five years.

Resolving those issues could smooth the path for increased commodity price supports and other provisions.

On the policy front, Thompson’s draft includes provisions endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans. Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), a member of the Agriculture Committee, cited the $150 million reauthorization of the “Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act,” H.R. 5186, which he co-sponsored with Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.). That program encourages landowners to make their property available to the public for hunting, fishing and other wildlife-oriented recreation.

The farm bill draft also includes a matching grant program for states and tribal governments to promote soil health, giving priority to those with “a climate action plan that includes soil health.”

Democratic leaders made clear that they wouldn’t support the bill as Thompson wrote it, and farm-district Democrats on the Agriculture Committee such as Angie Craig of Minnesota and Jim Costa of California face the prospect of voting against the main agriculture policy bill.

After House Agriculture ranking Democrat David Scott of Georgia criticized the measure, Stabenow offered a mix of skepticism and praise.

Stabenow said in statement that Thompson’s putting forward a bill is a positive step and that their respective proposals “have a lot in common.”

But where the bills differ, Stabenow said, Thompson’s draft risks breaking apart the rural-urban and Democratic-Republican coalitions that ensure passage of a farm bill.

“The only path forward is holding together our broad coalition of farmers, hunger and nutrition advocates, rural communities, conservationists, and the climate community,” she said. “That has always been how we ensure that our country’s farmers, families, workers, and rural communities have the certainty of a bipartisan, five-year Farm Bill.”

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