House passes farm bill on partisan vote; eyes turn to Senate

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, June 22, 2018

The House yesterday passed — on a partisan and razor-thin vote — a five-year farm bill that would preserve much of the farm safety net while cutting conservation programs and tightening work-related mandates for recipients of low-income nutrition assistance.

The vote was 213-211. Twenty Republicans voted against the bill, and no Democrats voted for it.

Yesterday’s passage was an about-face from the same bill’s demise in May, when conservative Republicans pushing for a vote on separate legislation imposing tougher immigration restrictions voted against the farm bill in protest, causing it to fail on the floor (Greenwire, May 18).

Supporters say the 2018 farm bill (H.R. 2) would preserve crop insurance and other farm supports at a time of declining farm income, while giving recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program an incentive to grow out of the program.

Opponents said the SNAP restrictions would be onerous; some lawmakers also oppose cuts to conservation, including elimination of the Conservation Stewardship Program and reductions in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said some Republicans who voted against it worried the changes to SNAP wouldn’t play well with voters in the midterm elections, while others — members of the conservative Freedom Caucus, mainly — had objections more related to federal spending.

The Senate is likely to take up its bill next week, leaders there say. That would mean both chambers pass a farm bill by July 1, which Conaway called a “pretty terrific task” that would pave the way toward a House-Senate conference committee that could complete its work before the 2014 farm bill expires at the end of September.

“Compromise means I will need to change some things I’ve done, and it means they will have to change some things they’ve done, as well,” Conaway said.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, collaborated on their bill and have said they’ll stick to a bipartisan approach. Stabenow said last week the Senate won’t accept the House’s proposed changes to SNAP (E&E Daily, June 15).

Other issues include easing environmental rules that slow forest-thinning projects on federal land; the Republican-written bill would expand categorical exclusions from the National Environmental Policy Act for forest thinning deemed helpful to reducing wildfire risk and responding to bug and disease infestations.

Thanks to an amendment approved during the bill’s consideration last month, the bill would also exempt Alaska’s Tongass and Chugach national forests from the “roadless rule” that bars logging in certain roadless areas of national forests.

And the bill would cut down on the amount of consultation the Department of Agriculture must do with the Fish and Wildlife Service on forest management projects, when the Agriculture secretary determines a project wouldn’t have negative impact on endangered species. That’s another provision environmental and wildlife groups oppose.

Reaction by farm policy stakeholders offered a glimpse of the policy areas likely to weigh on Congress as the farm bill progresses.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center criticized cuts to rural energy programs, such as the Rural Energy for America Program. The center’s senior policy advocate, Andy Olsen, said in an email, “Gutting energy title programs including REAP will hurt farmers, ranchers and rural small businesses who are seeking to improve their bottom lines by investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy.”

Environmental groups said the bill would undermine protections, and Defenders of Wildlife called it “anti-wildlife.” But the National Corn Growers Association called it a “big step forward.”

Crop insurance associations applauded the House action, saying in a statement, “We appreciate their unwavering commitment to protect crop insurance from harmful amendments that would have jeopardized this important risk management tool for our farmers and ranchers.”

Challenges ahead

Although House passage is a milestone, some of the hardest work on the farm bill remains if it’s to be enacted before the 2014 farm bill expires Sept. 30. The House measure diverges from the Senate’s version in several ways, primarily on the SNAP revisions.

The Senate bill, which passed the Agriculture Committee last week and is likely to reach the Senate floor next week, also would spare conservation the level of cuts envisioned by the House.

Both measures would boost acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program. The House goes further than the Senate, endorsing a cap of 29 million acres, up from 24 million in the 2014 farm bill.

The House bill would pay for the increased acreage by cutting the payment rate to farmers to 80 percent of the county-level market rent. The Senate measure would cap CRP at 25 million acres, cutting the payment rate to 88.5 percent; further debate on that issue is likely when the Senate takes up the bill.

Asked whether he would defend his version of the CRP cap, Conaway said a compromise bill will reflect a mix of the priorities of the House and the Senate and that it’s “not likely” such a measure would keep the conservation title just as the House committee wrote it.

Success in a conference committee could depend largely on one man — House Agriculture ranking Democrat Collin Peterson of Minnesota, said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), who worked with Peterson on the conference committee for the 2014 farm bill.

In the past, Lucas told E&E News, he and Peterson worked together in unified fashion, while the Senate “invariably is a unified force together in a conference committee, without regard to party.” Peterson has said he won’t advocate for the House version.

“This time around, the difference is where is Collin Peterson going to be when we go to conference, and that is a whole new world,” Lucas said.

Conaway said he expects that Peterson, despite his objections to the bill, will play a role on behalf of farmers when the bill goes to conference.

“My guess is Collin will weigh in on behalf of production agriculture as he has always done,” Conaway said, adding that Republicans made 20 changes to SNAP provisions in response to Democrats’ concerns as the bill moved along. “My guess is he’ll be an active part of the solution.”