Secretary Challenges House Farm Bill

Source: By Chris Clayton, Progressive Farmer • Posted: Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Vilsack Takes Aim at House Farm Bill, Saying It ‘Overpromises’ Farmers

OMAHA (DTN) — While the House draft farm bill loads up on the farm safety net, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the bill “overpromises” farmers while also forcing a “crack in the coalition” that normally passes a farm bill.

The House Agriculture Committee is set Thursday to markup and vote on the bill drafted by Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa.

Vilsack and Thompson are at odds over plans that will take away authority from USDA over the Commodity Credit Corp. fund, as well as just how many dollars that move frees up for the committee to spend on farm programs and crop insurance.

As DTN has highlighted, the bill would boost the commodity title with higher reference prices, increasing the cap on farm-program payments for full-time farmers, and allowing an update of base acres as well.

Vilsack, on a call with reporters Wednesday, said a farm bill is needed to help with the rural economy, but said, “I’ve got some deep concerns about the proposed House of Representatives bill that will be discussed and debated in committee.”

The House bill limits USDA’s use of the Commodity Credit Corp., (CCC), a fund that pays for USDA’s commodity, conservation and disaster programs. Under both the Biden administration and the Trump administration, the CCC has been tapped for programs meant to support producers. Vilsack said restricting USDA’s authority in the face of natural disasters “is problematic.”

Tying the hands of the secretary, Vilsack said, would make it impossible to use the CCC quickly in emergencies even though Congress can be slow to provide direct aid. Another problem, however, is the House bill restricts USDA so the dollars can then be spent to boost commodity prices and other farm programs.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that suspending USDA’s authority over ten years would save $8 billion. House Ag GOP staff maintain the savings should total $53 billion because CBO has previously forecast lower spending under the CCC than actually occurred. Vilsack called it “a budget gimmick” or “counterfeit money” because the savings aren’t real, he said.

In response to Vilsack’s comments, Thompson issued a statement. “Funding the farm bill is always a puzzle, and finding the right pieces to produce a strong farm bill has been tricky but also a worthwhile venture because we’ve been able to make historic investments in the Farm, Food, and National Security Act of 2024,” Thompson said.

Thompson also challenged Vilsack’s comments over the CCC dollars as a play for the secretary to keep control of the fund without congressional approval. Thompson and other Republicans over the past year have criticized Vilsack for using CCC dollars to spend $3.1 billion on nearly 140 climate-smart commodity pilot projects.

“It’s clear from this eleventh-hour push that the Secretary is determined to use every penny of the borrowing authority made available to him to circumvent Congress if left unchecked,” Thompson said. “The Committee is reasserting Congress’ authority over the Commodity Credit Corporation, which will bring reckless administrative spending under control and provides funding for key bipartisan priorities in the farm bill.”

He added, “The sudden rancor on using the CCC as a pay-for is nothing more than the latest partisan attempt to divide our committee and slow down progress on passing a farm bill.”

The $53 billion scored out by the House Ag GOP staff has become the basis for the increase in reference prices and other changes to the commodity programs. Those boosts in farm programs have led several major agricultural groups to back the House bill.

The American Farm Bureau Federation on Tuesday announced its support for the House bill.

“Included in the House’s farm bill is a much-needed investment in the farm safety net, including making crop insurance more affordable, which will help farmers withstand inflation and supply costs that have outpaced current programs,” said Zippy Duvall, president of AFBF. “New investments in specialty crop programs and research, along with preserving interstate commerce of agricultural products, will enable farmers to remain competitive in an ever-changing marketplace. Improvements to dairy programs will provide transparency, and more conservation resources will help farmers protect the resources they’ve been entrusted with. The farm bill also consists of important nutrition programs that help families facing hunger.”

Vilsack said the House bill creates a “false expectation” for farmers because the funds are not actually there to back all of the details offered in Thompson’s bill.

“The challenge here is for a bill that basically overpromises and will fail to deliver or will result in a farm bill that won’t be passed,” Vilsack said. “So, I’ve got deep concerns about this.”

Vilsack has maintained for months there are ways to use the CCC funds to help increase reference prices by directing a portion of that fund rather than stripping away USDA’s authority and ignoring the Congressional Budget Office in the process.

“They just don’t have the resources if they follow the rules to be able to do everything they are doing,” Vilsack said. “So, they’re basically raising the expectation that they’re going to be able to satisfy everybody’s whim and everybody’s desire. But the only way they do that is by creating a separate system where they disregard the system that’s designed to create some transparency and some honesty in the system.”

Vilsack also called for a full CBO score of the farm bill, which has not been done.

The bill also cuts $27 billion from spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), though House Ag GOP staff stated as much as $16 billion of those funds would be used to increase eligibility for SNAP and other nutrition programs. Vilsack said that ends up “robbing Peter to pay Paul” while reducing SNAP benefits created “a crack in the coalition” needed to pass a farm bill.

Vilsack also argued plans in the House bill for conservation programs “accelerates and exacerbates the consolidation and concentration of farm income and loss of farmland.”

The conservation proposals would raise the income cap for larger farmers to enroll in conservation. The bill also removes restrictions on Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) conservation dollars that were passed by Congress to focus on reducing greenhouse gases or sequestering carbon. Vilsack said that ends up taking away options for farmers to convert waste into bioproducts, produce and sell renewable energy or participate in carbon credit programs. “By taking resources away from climate-smart, you are eliminating and limiting the ability of farmers to get a value proposition for what they are raising,” Vilsack said. He added, “There’s significant consequences, all of which result in the larger farming operations getting the lion’s share of the resources, which in turn allows them to continue to do what they do, which is important to be productive. But it then comes at the cost of smaller and mid-sized operations and the negative impact that has on rural communities, on rural schools, on rural business, on rural health care. So, it’s a pretty significant impact.”

Also see: “House Plan Puts More ‘Farm in the Farm Bill’ But Widens Payment Disparities,”