Farm bill debate moves to Senate

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, June 25, 2018

A five-year farm bill is set for consideration in the Senate this week, as Congress tries to pass the legislation before the current farm bill expires at the end of September.

On the heels of swift passage in the Agriculture Committee last week, the bill, S. 3042, isn’t expected to face major obstacles, and Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) has said he believes senators could complete action within two days.

The first move is a procedural vote tonight, which would open the way to debate.

Highlights of the Senate version include what conservation advocates say is a less draconian approach to some of the programs they support, although a Congressional Budget Office estimate suggests the Department of Agriculture would have more money at its disposal for conservation over a 10-year period, due to quirks in the way the CBO scores programs.

More important to the bill’s prospects, advocates say, is the bipartisan model Roberts and ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan followed in crafting it. That could boost chances Congress meets the September deadline — depending how a House-Senate conference unfolds this summer.

The CBO estimated that the Senate bill would increase spending by $1.4 billion over the 2019-2023 period, compared to leaving the 2014 farm bill in place. The Senate version would provide USDA with $60.6 billion for conservation programs, compared to $63.3 billion in the House bill.

But advocacy groups are looking at the details within the bill’s titles, including differing approaches to certain conservation efforts.

The Senate would preserve the Conservation Stewardship Program, which the House version eliminates; but the House gives a bigger acreage increase to the conservation program.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has lined up behind the Senate, rather than the House, measure, citing the House’s proposal on CSP among other issues.

The Senate bill would reduce the number of CSP acres, however, resulting in savings of $1 billion, the CBO said.

At Stabenow’s urging, the Senate version includes a provision making changes to the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which she said would help draw more non-federal money into that initiative.

The Senate may debate amendments regarding payment limitations of farm programs, expansion of CRP acreage and restrictions on neonicotinoid pesticides. In addition, the National Wildlife Federation said it would work with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) to expand “sodsaver” provisions that limit crop insurance on native grasslands, extending that initiative beyond the “prairie pothole” states to over the entire nation.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said during the bill’s markup that he’ll look for further changes to CRP, including fewer restrictions on grazing and further increasing the acreage cap, now set at 24 million acres and proposed for 25 million acres in the Senate bill.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has called for tighter restrictions on who receives farm payments. And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said during markup that she’s looking for restrictions on neonicotinoids, citing dangers to pollinators.

Once the House and Senate committees try to reconcile the bills, the situation becomes murkier with the big split on low-income nutrition assistance. Senators say their chamber cannot pass a bill with work restrictions endorsed by the House; House members say they cannot pass a bill without them.

Some conservative groups have criticized Congress’ direction in the farm bill, including on the House version, which passed by two votes on the floor last week. Americans For Prosperity has urged Congress to pass a clean, one-year extension of the 2014 farm bill and resume efforts next year.