No farm bill better than bad one, advocates say

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Sustainable agriculture advocates said today they’d rather see the 2018 farm bill collapse than accept program cuts proposed by the House.

So far, signs of agreement are scant, farm policy groups said at a news conference, raising the prospect that the five-year legislation could fall to the new Congress that’s seated in January.

“No farm bill is better than a bad farm bill,” said Monica Mills, executive director of Food Policy Action, which lobbies for low-income nutrition programs and reduced use of pesticides.

The groups, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Environmental Working Group and Natural Resources Defense Council, are pushing for the Senate version of the bill (H.R. 2). The bill passed overwhelmingly earlier this year and provides more funding for conservation programs, while turning away from cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program envisioned by the House.

The Senate version, with its bipartisan support, “is the only viable path forward,” said Ferd Hoefner, senior strategic adviser at the NSAC. “There’s a path forward, and there’s a path that doesn’t get us a farm bill this year.”

The House version passed earlier this year without any Democratic support, including from the ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.).

Advocates predicted a compromise resembling the Senate bill is the likely outcome if Congress is to pass a farm bill this year.

That would suggest House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) and the House Republican leadership would eventually back down on employment requirements in their version of the bill, which are a major sticking point with Democrats, as well as on conservation cuts and rollbacks of environmental regulations in national forests, for instance.

In addition, the House version contains commodity provisions favorable to cotton growers in Texas at the expense of farmers in the Midwest, another point of contention with the Senate.

Conservation programs are in play as well, with Conaway pressing for eliminating the Conservation Stewardship Program and wrapping some of its funding into another initiative, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has been assembling opposition to that idea, which Hoefner today called “foolish beyond belief.”

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, told reporters last week she expects to finish the farm bill in time for a vote during the lame-duck session following the midterms.

Congress allowed the 2014 farm bill to expire at the end of September, although major programs such as crop insurance and commodity payments continue. A handful of smaller programs tied to conservation, organics and beginning farmers are suspended, however, until the bill is renewed.

If Congress doesn’t finish the farm bill this year, lawmakers are virtually certain to pass an extension into next year. At that point, Hoefner said, he would expect to see the smaller program wrapped in, too.

“It would be terrible to see those programs disappear,” Hoefner said.

How different a farm bill would look next year isn’t clear and depends on which party has the majority in the House. But it’s possible a bill would look “very, very different,” Hoefner said.