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Farm bill just making it across starting line

Policy Report: It may seem as though the new farm bill discussion has gone on forever, but the debates have just begun.

Bradley D. Lubben

June 6, 2024

5 Min Read
United States Capitol
JUST BEGINNING: It seems like the road to a new farm bill has already been a marathon, but a Nebraska Extension policy specialist says that the marathon is just beginning. dkfielding/Getty Images

The House Agriculture Committee reported a farm bill out of committee after a marathon session on May 23 that stretched past midnight into early May 24.

The committee meeting was an endurance event with the majority holding off major amendments from the minority before passing a bill largely intact as introduced. And committee passage is only the first step on a long road to a new farm bill.

But even the path to get to this point seems like a marathon — the long delay and legislative efforts last year just to extend the existing bill and the debate to this year seem a bit like the long time and number of steps that a runner in the pack in a large marathon must take just to get to the starting line.

Several revisions

The farm bill that passed through the House Agriculture Committee includes several revisions that would strengthen the farm income safety net for producers, including higher reference prices for the Price Loss Coverage program, higher protection levels for the Agriculture Risk Coverage program, and higher subsidy and protection levels for the Supplemental Coverage Option insurance policy.

The bill would also increase long-term funding for the broad portfolio of conservation programs and make other changes to federal farm policy, including some expansion of food assistance programs.

Of course, the revisions come with costs, and in the current budget framework of pay as you go, the funding comes from cuts or budget offsets in other parts of the bill. The proposed cuts are where most of the debate and partisan divide occurred among members of the ag committee.

The bill proposes a substantial cut in projected spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the primary food assistance program included in the farm bill. The proposed cut is not so much a cut in current benefits as it is a reduction in potential future increases in benefits because of future adjustments in something called the Thrifty Food Plan.

The Thrifty Food Plan is revised periodically to reflect what households are purchasing and eating as a basis for calculating SNAP benefits. Benefits are already adjusted for inflation, so food plan revisions might not be expected to have major cost impacts, but the revisions enacted by the current administration after the 2018 Farm Bill added more spending to the SNAP program than the rest of the farm bill combined.

Resulting debate has been characterized as an attempt to control runaway program costs by one side and an attack on benefits for the food insecure by the other side.

Other farm bill changes

Another major proposed spending revision would take one-time funding for climate-smart agricultural practices contained in the Inflation Reduction Act enacted in 2022 and make two major changes.

The first would take the one-time spending authority and shift it to underlying conservation program spending that would become part of the continuing baseline for future farm bills, something that is generally not controversial among policymakers.

The second change would take the climate-smart restriction off the spending and make it available for additional conservation practices. While this would add funding for many practices that are oversubscribed or short of funding, it would not ensure the focus on climate practices and is a battleground for debate in the farm bill.

The third major spending battle is over the secretary of agriculture’s discretion to use certain funds of the Commodity Credit Corporation for agricultural commodity support. The discretion allows the secretary to respond promptly to various calls for support and spending without the need for action or approval of Congress.

Former USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue tapped CCC funding for trade assistance in response to the trade conflicts during the Trump administration. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has used the CCC funding to support climate-smart commodity grants and other support. The battle is over both the secretary’s authority to spend the funds without congressional approval, as well as the estimated cost of that spending, and thus the estimated budget savings that could occur if the authority were restricted.

The battle lines again seem to be drawn over partisan lines, and it would not be too much of a stretch to conclude that neither party trusts a secretary of the other party with how to spend the money. The battle over the projected costs is really a fight between the budget estimators at the Congressional Budget Office and House Ag Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., the author of the bill.

The difference in what the CBO projected might normally be spent from the account and what Thompson argued is the average spending over the past several years could be the difference between around $10 billion or about $50 billion in savings from a spending restriction, enough to make or break the other proposed revisions in commodity program and crop insurance support.

Not anytime soon

As noted, the farm bill made it out of the House Agriculture Committee and did so with the three major spending changes noted above after withstanding Democratic amendments to eliminate the changes. Whether those provisions and the overall bill can make it across the floor of the House is the next big step, albeit one that Thompson has suggested won’t happen before September at the earliest.

Thus, the fate of the House farm bill is far from certain, but at least it is on the table. Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., released her farm bill principles around the same time the House released its proposed language and argued against the funding changes the House was proposing, but has not released specific details or a clear picture of how she would pay for the changes she promises.

With so much work yet to do and an uncertain timeline ahead, it would seem the marathon is just beginning.

Lubben is the Extension policy specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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About the Author(s)

Bradley D. Lubben

Lubben is a Nebraska Extension associate professor, policy specialist, and director of the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center in the Department of Ag Economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has more than 25 years of experience in teaching, research and Extension, focusing on ag policy and economics. Lubben grew up on a grain and livestock farm near Burr, Neb., and holds degrees from UNL and Kansas State University.

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