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Vilsack questions Republican farm bill math

Thompson dismisses remarks as partisan attempt to divide ag committee.

Joshua Baethge, Policy editor

May 22, 2024

4 Min Read
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Getty Images/Andrii Yalanskyi

Add Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to the growing list of people speaking out against the House Republican farm bill plan. During a Wednesday call with reporters, he said he had “deep concerns” about the farm bill proposal House Agriculture Committee members are set to debate Thursday.

Vilsack zeroed on Republican plans to suspend his ability to use Commodity Credit Corporation funds for emergencies and natural disaster assistance. The GOP contends this authority should rest with Congress. According to them, changing the CCC guidelines will free up somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 to $50 billion in farm bill funding.

GOP lawmakers plan to use those funds to boost farm safety net programs. However, according to Vilsack, the CCC changes will only save around $8 billion. He accused Republicans of using “counterfeit money” to fund many proposals.

“It’s sort of like at Christmas time, you go out and essentially buy all the gifts on credit, and then the bill comes due in January, and you have to really tighten the belt to make serious sacrifices,” he says. “They just don’t have the resources, if they follow the rules, to be able to do everything that they’re doing.”

Ag Committee Chair Glenn “GT” Thompson wasted little time responding to the accusation. He says the “sudden rancor on using the CCC as a pay-for” is nothing more than the latest partisan attempt to divide the ag committee and slow down progress on passing a farm bill.

Related:Down with the 'hunger weirdos'

“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 says. “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.”

Shrewd politics or desperate gamble?

On the surface, Thompson’s decision to introduce a farm bill opposed by Democrats might seem misguided. In order to become law, the bill needs the approval of a Democrat-controlled Senate and a Democratic president.

Before it can get that far, it would first need to clear the House, where nothing happens easily these days. There are still multiple far-right lawmakers seemingly intent on opposing any spending bills that don’t include massive cuts.

Given Republican’s slim House majority, their farm bill proposal only stands a chance if a substantial number of Democrats can be persuaded. Thompson is betting he can do just that.

Related:Policy quick hits: The farm bill reaction edition

Republican involved in the farm bill negotiations continue to stress their legislation is bipartisan in nature. They note that many in the GOP would have gladly supported massive SNAP program cuts or moving conservation funding to other priorities. Instead, they’ve maintained SNAP farm bill funding, but put caps on the Thrifty Food Plan that sets SNAP rates.

Behind that argument is also a veiled threat. This may be the best deal you are going to get. Current polling shows Donald Trump leading President Biden in most swing states. Republicans also stand a good chance of taking back the Senate majority. If Republicans hang on to the House as well, Democrats would be stuck with next to no leverage. Are they willing to take that chance?

While he has made the obligatory comments criticizing Biden policies and Democrat spending Thompson has also gone out of his way to present his bill as moderate and bipartisan. Privately, aids have pushed back against attempts to classify Thompson as a “MAGA Republican,” saying that’s simply not who he is. As one of them said bluntly last week, “It’s not a MAGA bill, whatever that means.”

Over the past four years, Democrats have won a number of races by framing themselves as moderates standing up against the chaos of Donald Trump and his allies.

Related:Farm bill progress or posturing?

Now, Thompson and House Republicans are attempting to paint Dems as the ones out of touch and unwilling to compromise. For lawmakers running in competitive districts, this put them in somewhat of a difficult position.

So far, Democrats have stayed publicly united. On Tuesday, Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee released a statement calling the Republican plan an “unforced error,” that will only make it harder to get Democrat support down the road.

“Farmers know that the only way we get a farm bill this year is if Republicans and Democrats work together and respect each other’s priorities,” the statement concluded. “House Republicans should drop their partisan approach and work with Democrats to pass a truly bipartisan farm bill.”

While leaders from both sides agree with that sentiment, their definitions of “truly bipartisan” remain miles apart. Ultimately, it may be voters who determine which party gets to define “bipartisan” and the farm bill.

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About the Author(s)

Joshua Baethge

Policy editor, Farm Progress

Joshua Baethge covers a wide range of government issues affecting agriculture. Before joining Farm Progress, he spent 10 years as a news and feature reporter in Texas. During that time, he covered multiple state and local government entities, while also writing about real estate, nightlife, culture and whatever else was the news of the day.

Baethge earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Texas. In his free time, he enjoys going to concerts, discovering new restaurants, finding excuses to be outside and traveling as much as possible. He is based in the Dallas area where he lives with his wife and two kids.

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