Vilsack pans farm bill, cites climate ahead of House markup

Source: By Marc Heller, E&E News • Posted: Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Agriculture secretary and Democratic lawmakers are lined up against House Republicans’ plans for the $1.5 trillion measure.

House Agriculture Committee.

The House Agriculture Committee will mark up its farm bill Thursday. Agriculture Committee

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and House Agriculture Chair Glenn Thompson clashed Wednesday on climate provisions in the farm bill, a day ahead of what’s likely to be a party-line committee markup.

Democrats say they expect to propose numerous amendments on climate, conservation and other matters, though most are expected to be rejected.

In a call with agriculture reporters, Vilsack warned that the Republican chair’s approach to the five-year legislation relies on questionable financing while thwarting climate-smart agriculture and ditching the political coalition that normally holds a farm bill together.

Thompson (R-Pa.) shot back that Vilsack appears intent simply on preserving his ability to spend billions of dollars in the Agriculture Department’s budget without congressional approval — a practice Thompson’s proposal would scale back.

The farm bill, estimated to cost as much as $1.5 trillion over 10 years, is set for a markup Thursday. It would authorize programs across the USDA, from conservation to low-income nutrition assistance to management of national forests. Lawmakers said they expect few if any Democrats to support it without changes. The current farm bill was enacted in 2018 and extended one year until Sept. 30.

Vilsack said he has “deep concerns” about aspects of the draft legislation released Friday and doubts it can pass this year without significant revision to bring it closer to a version envisioned by Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).

He specifically objected to Republican plans to move unspent conservation money in the 2022 climate law away from emissions reduction mandates.

Thompson and Vilsack also tangled over a pool of money the USDA has been tapping to award climate-smart agriculture grants. The Republican farm bill would restrict the use of that money.

Said Vilsack of the House bill: “It really is designed not to create a route to passage, but I think it’s designed unfortunately for a route to impasse which will create further delay,”

Thompson, in a statement, said it’s Vilsack who’s looking to slow the bill and to continue department practices that the Republican proposal would rein in.

“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.

Politically, a proposed change in nutrition assistance to low-income households puts Democratic votes at greatest risk. Removing climate-smart farming as a condition for some conservation money, too, threatens to shave off Democratic votes.

Fights over climate law

Vilsack took issue with Thompson’s proposed changes to both.

On nutrition assistance, the chair has said his draft bill would rein in costs without lessening benefits. But Vilsack said the proposal would do exactly that by as much as $27 billion over time, even as some provisions enhance parts of the program.

The combination of nutrition assistance and traditional agriculture programs in the farm bill has for decades held the legislation together by attracting both rural and urban votes across party lines. Vilsack said the GOP proposal, however, creates “essentially a crack in the coalition.”

On conservation, Vilsack said Thompson’s proposal to move as much as $14 billion in unspent Inflation Reduction Act conservation funding to the farm bill — but remove the IRA’s mandate for emissions-reducing practices — could hasten the consolidation trend that continues to push small farms out of business.

That’s because climate-smart agriculture gives struggling farms new marketing opportunities by promoting crops and other goods as helping in the fight against climate change, and by providing a way to participate in carbon markets that reward such reductions, Vilsack said.

Thompson has said he’s in favor of programs that encourage carbon sequestration, and aspects of the bill would encourage measures that boost soil health and carbon-saving additives such as biochar. But he’s objected to the IRA’s mandate, saying states and localities should decide which conservation practices make sense locally.

Thompson also complained about Vilsack’s tapping of the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp. to pay for climate-smart agriculture grants, and the draft bill would sharply curtail the secretary’s authority to draw on the CCC for administration priorities. Vilsack’s predecessor, Sonny Perdue, similarly used CCC funding in a novel way by paying farmers for disruptions caused by the Trump administration’s trade war with China.

The CCC provision in Thompson’s proposal caught Vilsack’s attention as well.

Vilsack said the provision would hamstring the USDA’s ability to quickly tap the CCC after weather-related disasters — an increasing concern with the impacts of climate change — and provide assistance to farmers.

“We all know that drought, tornadoes, storms, hurricanes occur and it’s necessary for USDA to have the capacity and the ability and the flexibility to respond in a moment’s notice to the impact of such natural disasters,” he said.

Thompson countered, “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.”

The Agriculture secretary cited the related budget difficulties Thompson faces as well — a fiscal hurdle that could greatly complicate efforts to reach a final compromise.

Thompson has said the change to the CCC could yield as much as $50 billion in savings to be used instead to boost commodity support prices, a major priority for groups representing growers of those crops. But the Congressional Budget Office put the savings at just $8 billion, and House Agriculture Committee staff said discussions with the CBO to resolve the difference were ongoing.

Disregarding the CBO would require “pretty creative math,” Vilsack said, adding, “You can’t finance it on counterfeit money.”

Dems readying amendments

Dozens of amendments may be proposed at the markup, including by Democrats looking to boost priorities that were left out. Rep. Gabe Vasquez (D-N.M.) filed an amendment to restore the IRA conservation funds’ tie to climate-smart practices.

Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) said she’ll offer a provision to encourage young and beginning farmers.

The bill overall doesn’t have her support, Craig told reporters, because of the removal of climate change as a priority for conservation programs and because of the measure’s funding mechanism including moving money from nutrition programs.

Still, Craig said, partisan House action doesn’t mean a farm bill can’t be signed into law this year. The 2018 farm bill initially failed to advance on the House floor. But after negotiations with the Senate, Craig said, “We ended up with a pretty good farm bill.”

In some cases, Democrats are looking to the Democratic-led Senate to promote their issues. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) said the Senate Democratic framework is more generous in helping farmers whose land and livestock are contaminated by “forever” chemicals, or PFAS, but that she doesn’t expect to offer any amendments at the markup.

Craig and Pingree, like other Democrats on the committee, have seen bills or elements of bills they helped write be included in Thompson’s draft. Broadly, Craig said, she’s supportive of policies in the measure.

In the Senate, Stabenow said that once the House committee bill moves through committee, discussions can pick up between the chambers.

Senate Agriculture ranking member John Boozman of Arkansas said Wednesday that he’ll release a farm bill framework in around two weeks, once the Senate returns from its Memorial Day recess. Like Thompson, he’s called for moving IRA funding into the farm bill but dropping requirements that it be used for practices that reduce climate-related emissions.

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