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Vilsack says House proposal threatens farm bill coalition

Thompson says Vilsack is trying to slow work on the bill

House Agriculture Chairman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., left, and Agriculture Secretary  Tom Vilsack speak before a committee hearing in March, 2023.
House Agriculture Chairman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., left, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speak before a committee hearing in March, 2023. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the House’s farm bill is designed for an “impasse” and will cause additional delays in renewing provisions that lawmakers have already had to extend by a year. 

“The reality is, it’s crossing a significant red line that has been established throughout the course of the conversation about a farm bill,” Vilsack said Wednesday in a briefing about the House’s proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The House bill would require any changes to USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan, a tool for setting SNAP benefits, to be cost-neutral, effectively barring SNAP benefits from increasing or decreasing except to reflect the cost of living. 

Vilsack said that proposal essentially would reduce SNAP benefits over time by as much as $27 billion.

“I think the fact that we’re crossing that red line raises the real possibility of being unable to get a farm bill through the process,” he said. “It is essentially a crack in the coalition that is absolutely necessary to the passage of a farm bill.”

By combining nutrition programs with farm programs, the bill has traditionally drawn bipartisan support. 

The House Agriculture Committee is scheduled to mark up the bill on Thursday. The current law extended policies laid out in the 2018 farm bill through Sept. 30. 

Vilsack also opposed Republicans’ push to restrict the USDA’s Section 5 authority to use the Commodity Credit Corporation. The draft bill stipulates that USDA would only be allowed to use the CCC funds if authorized by Congress from fiscal 2025 through fiscal 2034.

“What the chairman is proposing … is essentially to eliminate the capacity of the secretary of Agriculture to utilize the CCC in the face of a national disaster,” Vilsack said. “That’s a complete ban and complete shutdown of that flexibility in their capacity.”

Vilsack said the Congressional Budget Office scored the savings from suspending the CCC authority at $8 billion, a much lower figure than what he said Agriculture Committee Republicans are assuming. The CBO hasn’t yet publicly released a score for the bill. 

“When they basically proposed a complete shutdown of that capacity, they disregard the CBO score and basically say no, it’s not $8 billion in savings, it’s $30 [billion], $40 [billion], $50 billion in savings,” Vilsack said. “You can’t finance it on counterfeit money, and that’s essentially what we’re doing here.”

House Agriculture Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., said in a statement that 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.”

“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 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.”

At a House Agriculture Committee briefing by staff members last week, a Republican aide said they believe there is an error in the CBO’s forecast. “The committee is working very closely with our partners in the Budget Committee to rectify this error,” the aide said. 

Vilsack also addressed the draft farm bill’s shifting of unspent funds provided by a 2022 clean energy law into the conservation title.

“It accelerates and exacerbates the consolidation and concentration of farm income and loss of farmland by basically taking the resources away from climate-smart,” he said. “You are eliminating and limiting the ability of farmers to basically get a value-added proposition for what they’re growing and raising.”

Vilsack urged Congress to accelerate the farm bill process and said that a proposal from Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., “is a more practical, let’s-get-it-done, here’s- what-is-doable approach.”

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