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Stick With Senate Farm Bill or Extend Existing Law, Groups Say

Agriculture committee staffers in both chambers continue to work on compromise

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., helped push through their farm bill that passed the chamber on an 86-11 vote. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., helped push through their farm bill that passed the chamber on an 86-11 vote. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Unless key farm bill negotiators use the Senate version as the template for a new bill, an extension of the now expired 2014 farm law would be better than using the House farm bill as the basis for a conference report, representatives from nutrition, environmental, small farmer and food policy groups said Monday.

At a briefing, the organizations said the House and Senate farm bills differ sharply in important areas. While they want a new bill to replace the farm law that expired Sept. 30, the organizations say they represent a broad coalition that would oppose a bill based on the House farm bill version, which calls for changes, including to farm payments and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The Environmental Working Group, Food Policy Action, Food Research and Action Center, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council and Union of Concerned Scientists said no new farm bill is better than one that borrows heavily from a House farm bill that squeaked through on a 213-211 vote with no Democratic support.

The organizations have an interest in the farm bill and champion issues that Democrats and some Republicans are sympathetic to.

“The Senate bill is a hard-fought compromise. They made it across the finish line in historic numbers,” said Ferd Hoefner, senior strategic adviser for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, referring to the legislation that passed the Senate on an 86-11 vote. “What could be clearer that this is the path forward and the only path forward.”

The organizations say they back the Senate farm bill’s provisions to tighten rules on who is eligible for farm subsidies and set the means test for subsidies at a lower adjusted gross income — from $900,000 for an individual or $1.8 million for a married couple to $700,000 for an individual or $1.4 million for a married couple. The bill also would continue the Conservation Stewardship Program that requires participating farmers to use environmental practices on land still producing crops.

Erik D. Olson, senior health and food director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he and other groups want the Conservation Stewardship Program to continue. However, he said there are larger concerns such as riders that would allow the EPA to approve pesticides without consulting with the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service about possible effects on ecosystems. The agencies oversee the Endangered Species Act.

“I think there is a very real concern that, obviously, there will be pressure to allow some of these riders,” Olson said, but he said he thinks a final bill with a provision like the pesticide language would not pass the Senate.

Monica Mills, executive director of the Food Policy Action, said the bottom line for the organizations is that “movements to include compromises that are in the House farm bill are things none of us at this table are willing to accept. If it goes in that direction, no farm bill is better than a bad farm bill.” The group promotes policies for healthy nutritional diets and efforts to reduce hunger in the United States and abroad.

Senate and House Agriculture committee staffers continue to work on proposals for a compromise bill subject to review by Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas and ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow  of Michigan and House Agriculture Chairman K. Michael Conaway of Texas and ranking Democrat Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota. The four principal negotiators have said they will stay in touch by phone since both chambers are in recess until after the midterm elections.

SNAP, former known as the foods stamps program, remains a main obstacle. The House bill would expand work requirements, tighten eligibility requirements and change calculations of monthly benefits for low-income people receiving food aid from SNAP. 

The Senate farm bill would tighten accountability for states running SNAP programs and expand pilot programs designed to improve the effectiveness of state work programs. 

Flashback: Farm Bill Defeat Leads to Confusion on the House Floor

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Regional sensitivities

Regional differences also are bogging down negotiations.

A House provision would allow farmers to update the planting yields used in calculating subsidy payments from the Price Loss Coverage program if their counties were designated as exceptional drought countries for at least 20 weeks between 2008 and 2012.

The language would benefit many counties in Texas, western Louisiana, western Oklahoma, western Kansas, western Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and some counties in New Mexico and Arizona, according to a joint Oct. 3 paper by agricultural economists at Ohio State University and University of Illinois. Other counties that would benefit are in middle Georgia extending down into Alabama and up into South and North Carolina.

Past farm bills have allowed farmers nationally to update planting yields. The language is viewed as largely benefiting cotton farmers, particularly in west Texas, said Scott Faber, government affairs vice president of Environmental Working Group. Faber said another House provision would end subsidy payments to farmers on certain types of acres, which would affect other parts of the country including Kansas and the Dakotas.

The money saved from ending those payments would be used to cover the additional spending on the updated planting yields, Faber said.

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