Farm Bill Remains on Life Support

As former Yankee catcher Yogi Berra is supposed to have said,

“It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

 

Inside the Farm Bill

What is the Farm Bill anyway? It’s a massive piece of legislation – 942 pages in one version before Congress, compared with about 1,200 pages in the average Bible. To many, it’s not blasphemy to think of the Farm Bill as the Bible for American agriculture.

The 2018 Farm bill contained 12 separate titles, including commodity support programs, crop insurance, conservation, trade, bioenergy, research, forestry, rural development, credit, nutrition and more. It provides the basic “rules of the road” for our entire food system.

The Farm Bill provides everyone, from farmers to consumers, with the guidance they need to make intelligent decisions about how we produce and consume our food and maintain a vibrant farming sector and thriving rural communities.

Historically, Congress has approved 18 separate farm bills since the 1930s, usually one every five years or so.

That’s no small feat legislatively.

But by combining farm support measures with nutrition programs – notably the old “Food Stamp” program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”) – rural and urban legislators have been able to come together to produce a much too complex and far-reaching piece of legislation.

The process consistently has produced farm policies and programs that have fed the nation.

And much of the rest of the world.

Political Pushback 

Three of the past four Farm Bills have required one-year extensions, including the extension passed last November. Despite ambitious efforts by both House and Senate legislators, a fresh Farm Bill still hasn’t passed Congress. In fact, it’s so far from the final passage that many worry that yet another one-year extension is almost inevitable.

With a crowded legislative agenda on Capitol Hill, a looming presidential election, and continuing political divisions still in play, hope for passage seems to be waning with each passing week. The ostensible reasons for the delay are familiar.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle point to a long list of philosophic and practical differences, most seeming to boil down to matters of how to divide the funds in a bill estimated by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to cost an estimated $1.4 trillion over the coming decade.

Some of the key issues under debate include:

Allocating funds provided by the Inflation Reduction Act

President Biden’s Act of 2022 added $19.5 billion to existing conservation programs for “climate-smart mitigation practices” that contribute to carbon sequestration and reduction of greenhouse gases.

  • Some legislators favor moving those funds into the Farm Bill spending and expanding eligibility for producers.
  • GOP senators point out that about half of ‘traditional’ farm conservation activities currently are excluded from the IRA and want to use more of the IRA monies to support those activities.
  • Environmental groups and their political supporters want to make sure any funding shift does not weaken the federal commitment to addressing climate issues or in any way contribute to a shift in overall funding away from these environmental goals.

Increases in reference prices

Basically, a means of raising support payments to food producers in the face of inflation-driven costs increases and historically weak commodity prices.

  • Critics of the increases worry that the money for such added Farm Bill expenses would come from savings achieved by reductions in SNAP costs.
  • SNAP supporters question why farmers’ economic needs are more important than feeding hungry people.

Changes in SNAP payments and program eligibility

The CBO estimates that revised calculations and refinements to its eligibility standards would save as much as $30 billion over ten years.

  • Nutritional program costs represent nearly 82 percent of all Farm Bill spending – a share that has been steadily increasing over recent years.
  • Critics wonder what the SNAP program has to do with producing food. They think this should be a separate bill instead of hidden in payment to producers.
  • Budget hawks seek ways of controlling the costs – or at least temper the rate of growth in nutrition spending.

The central issue is how to spend the available money. In highly simplified terms:

One camp argues for using the available pot of money on a wider range of traditional farm and rural community support policies and programsand

the other wants to preserve the Biden focus on policies and programs aimed at facilitating the movement of the farm and food community to more “green” practices – and equally important, protection of the people served by the SNAP program.

The Path to Passage

Part of the delay is procedural. Passing a Farm Bill is a complicated series of actions: developing and approving a bill by committees, passage by the House and Senate, reconciling differences through a House-Senate conference, and submission to the President for signature. It may not sound all that difficult, but it is.

Note that the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have spent almost an entire year listening to and engaging farmers, farm and commodity groups, consumers, health and nutrition experts, academics, local authorities and many others in discussions about farm policies and programs. Legislation of nearly 1,000 pages reflecting all these interests takes time to develop.

Maybe more importantly, the calendar is not the Farm Bill’s friend. The legislative time available for action is limited, and competition for floor time is intense. The House of Representatives averages about 151 days in session each year, and the Senate 168 days. Election years—especially presidential election years—usually provide members with extended time to campaign. This year is no different.

In the final six months of 2024, the U.S. Senate is tentatively scheduled to be in session for 53 days. In the House, it’s 42 days. “Tentative” schedules are just that, and they may be subject to change. Lame-duck sessions also are possible. But whatever decisions might be made for keeping Congress at work, the calendar – and history – don’t suggest a rosy outlook for Farm Bill resolution in 2024.

Opposing Points of View

Beyond the realities of the calendar, simple politics is part of the delay in resolving the fundamental issues.

First, the farm bill process has succeeded for almost a century because of the willingness of all parties involved to come to agreement, if not total consensus. Compromise on any issue has proved elusive to this Congress, obviously. But old Farm Bill hands also point out that this time around, as much as 70 percent of Congress has never been through a Farm Bill process.

One in four U.S. senators has been in office for six or fewer years.  In the House, it’s 45 percent – almost half. There’s less experience with – or appreciation for – the importance of finding agreement on something as essential as the food security of the populace. Some members simply don’t have the background to see the Farm Bill as anything but yet another football to be kicked around the political playing field.