Cost vs. policy priorities snag farm bill talks

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 13, 2018

Negotiators crafting the 2018 farm bill are at odds over a basic question: Which comes first — setting the cost or setting the policy?

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) told reporters yesterday that the top four lawmakers negotiating the bill don’t have a budget agreement — a necessary ingredient before they can settle on programs.

But his counterpart, House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas), said agreeing to numbers in each title of the bill first would limit lawmakers as they try to make changes in everything from nutrition programs to conservation and crop insurance.

“We also have to agree on policy,” Conaway told reporters ahead of a planned evening meeting with Roberts, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.).

“I’m not going to get boxed in on a number that precludes me being able to get the policies I want as well,” Conaway said. He said he has “high expectations” that today’s meeting will yield progress on the point.

The leaders of the House-Senate conference committee are trying to come to agreement on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, conservation programs and crop programs that have cost implications.

The House is looking for employment-related requirements for SNAP, as well as a reorganization of some conservation programs, including eliminating the Conservation Stewardship Program.

Setting budget levels on each of the bill’s titles limits lawmakers’ ability to move money between them to meet program goals.

Roberts said setting budget numbers is “the biggest thing” as negotiators try to compromise. “That drives the discussion on what you can or cannot do.”

Roberts added, “If we can get to that agreement, I think we can get to finishing the bill.”

Lawmakers are running out of time to complete the legislation before the current farm bill expires Sept. 30. In reality, though, many farm programs are funded longer than that, and Roberts said it’s possible Congress won’t complete the bill until after the November midterm elections.

Conaway rejected that idea.

“That is not something I’ve entertained at all. We’re going to get this done,” he said.