The need to provide certainty for farmers and pass an on-time farm bill was repeatedly stated as being the goal when the joint farm bill conference committee -- made up of members from both the House and Senate -- met Wednesday morning for their first joint meeting.
No significant headway was made on the differences that exist between the chambers’ respective versions of the farm bill, although it was noted that the ability to bridge those differences is manageable, as all of the conferees were allowed time to express their priorities and concerns in three hours of opening statements.
Only 10 legislative days are left ahead of the current bill's Sept. 30 expiration, and there is a need to avoid a government shutdown as the chambers work through their respective appropriations bills for the next fiscal year.
“We are very close to the finish line, but we still have a lot of work — a lot of compromise — that remains to be done,” said Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), who is now working on the seventh farm bill of his career. Roberts is charged with overseeing the joint conferencing of the bills that differ in their approach to nutrition assistance as well as how to handle support for the commodity title, conservation funding and the energy title.
The Senate passed its farm bill earlier this year by the strongest vote since the first farm bill during the Great Depression, with 86 voting in favor of it. Senators used this as an opportunity to point to bipartisan support of their bill, contrary to the House version, which no Democrats voted in favor of.
House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) said the goal needs to be getting a bill that will pass each chamber and be signed into law. “Nobody in this room is going to get everything he or she wants; this process is about compromise,” Peterson said.
House Agriculture Committee chairman Mike Conaway (R., Texas) noted, “There are certainly areas of disagreement between the two chambers — disagreements that stretch far beyond the nutrition title and are plainly reflected in our respective versions of the farm bill — but the good news is that I have seen no disagreement that should prevent us from completing a strong farm bill on time.”
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who rarely sits on conference committees in his leadership position, said, “I think we can all agree: Failure is not an option. We need to get a farm bill signed into law before the end of September.” He added that if this isn’t accomplished, it will be a “bipartisan failure.”
Conaway said even with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), he has repeatedly emphasized that “we are willing and able to come to consensus with the Senate.”
Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) said the Senate focused on bipartisan provisions to improve the integrity of nutrition assistance by tightening oversight of state administration of SNAP. She added that nutrition programs already have strong work requirements, and they are maintained and strengthened in the Senate's farm bill version by creating new job training opportunities.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D., Mass.), an outspoken opponent of cuts to nutrition assistance in the recent House farm bill debates, voiced support for the Senate’s approach in his opening statement of the meeting.
Former House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) also said of the nutrition assistance funding controversy that he’s still waiting for pilot projects established in the last farm bill to yield results on imposing additional work requirements for SNAP participants.
“Whatever we decide on nutrition, let’s not make it more difficult for consumers who need more help,” Lucas said, adding that it’s important to continue to offer SNAP participants flexibility in what they purchase.
Meanwhile, the Trump Administration took to Twitter to make its views known on the SNAP debate.
President Donald Trump tweeted: “The Trump Economy is booming with help of House and Senate GOP. #FarmBill with SNAP work requirements will bolster farmers and get America back to work. Pass the Farm Bill with SNAP work requirements!”
Vice President Mike Pence also made his views known, tweeting: “Congress must pass the #FarmBill to give farmers the certainty they need & include work requirements for SNAP recipients to restore the dignity of work & fill the job openings that have resulted from our booming economy!”
How to approach conservation funding is another stark difference between House and Senate versions of the farm bill. The House version eliminates the Conservation Security Program working lands program and combines it into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Each increases total acres in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) but does so differently with rental rates and the amount of acreage increase.
Differences also exist in the commodity title with how the Average Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) programs offer support for farmers. Rep. Austin Scott (R., Ga.) reminded conferees that each region of the country has different needs. “What is right in the North or West may not be right in the Southeast,” he said, adding that the Senate’s language on actively engaged in farming could hurt farmers in his district.
Several conferees expressed support for the need for a well-funded animal disease preparedness and response program as well as funds to establish a foot and mouth disease (FMD) vaccine bank.
Conaway said, “We put strong funding in the House farm bill, and Mr. Peterson’s motion to instruct, which was overwhelmingly approved in the House, urges us to go further.” Livestock groups are seeking funding for the FMD vaccine bank at $150 million a year for each of the five years of the bill, as well as annual funding of $30 million for the National Animal Health Laboratory Network and $70 million for state animal health agencies for foreign animal disease emergency preparation.
The House version eliminated the energy title in the farm bill. Sen. Tim Walz (D., Minn.) said doing anything that undermines the Renewable Energy Assistance Program or investments in renewable energy “just doesn’t make sense.”