Farm bill release imminent

Source: By Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, December 10, 2018

A long-awaited conference report on the 2018 farm bill could come as soon as tomorrow, with a vote possible in the House this week.

Action on the five-year legislation was held up last week amid the funeral and related ceremonies for former President George H.W. Bush, but lawmakers say the schedule appears on track for House and Senate passage before Dec. 21, the next deadline for Congress to approve appropriations for the rest of this fiscal year.

Agriculture Committee leaders in both chambers say they expect President Trump to sign the farm bill compromise. Negotiators have been working through the language since summer.

Highlights of the tentative agreement reached between House and Senate negotiators include a shifting of money between two major conservation initiatives — the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program — as well as an increase in the number of acres in the Conservation Reserve Program, to a cap of 27 million acres.

One key to advancing the legislation is cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, which lawmakers expect to have in hand early this week.

The scores have proven particularly sensitive for conservation programs, Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said recently, as lawmakers look to rebalance CSP, EQIP, CRP and smaller initiatives and keep overall costs in line.

The House vote is likely to line up very differently from the vote earlier this year, when it passed with no Democrats in support.

This time, many Democrats are likely to back it, given the softer treatment of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. But it’s not clear that Republicans can deliver as many votes as they did to pass their own version, H.R. 2, said Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.).

Stabenow last week also dismissed questions about whether the farm bill might have trouble passing the Senate, saying she was very confident in the measure.

Farm groups and other organizations say the agreement, about which top lawmakers have been tight-lipped, appears to hem much closer to the Senate version than to the measure the House passed earlier this year.

That would mean more modest employment-related requirements in SNAP, which is the costliest part of the roughly $900 billion farm bill.

The deal also appears to save the CSP from proposed elimination in the House, although the program’s advocates say they worry it will sustain a cut in funding.

The agreement similarly jettisons most of the House-passed provisions to encourage more forest thinning, especially on public lands. House Republicans seek to loosen some environmental reviews of forest management projects that they say would reduce wildfire threats.

But the issue was handled by Democratic leaders in the Senate, taken out of the Agriculture committees’ hands, Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) has said.

Other provisions lawmakers have said are in the agreement include a revamped safety net for dairy farmers and expanded opportunities to grow industrial hemp, a priority of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

But negotiators dropped a provision refunding dairy farmers the premiums they paid into a margin insurance program that failed to protect them against losses, according to congressional sources.