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INSIDE WASHINGTON: What controversy exists in Senate farm bill

CRP flexibility, hemp legalization and payment limits are three issues debated more thoroughly during Senate farm bill markup.

The Senate was predominantly void of drama during its farm bill markup on Wednesday, but there were a handful of issues that revealed that further discussion may be coming on the floor. Differences of opinions existed on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres, hemp regulations and payment limits.

Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) said many senators introduced legislation over the last year to address specific priorities of members and their stakeholders. Many of those were addressed in the draft. In addition, 66 amendments were approved during the markup as part of the manager’s amendment.

Overall, the Senate farm bill does not appear to have any poison pills or controversial amendments as it heads to the full Senate floor before the July 4 recess. Senate agricultural leaders are doing their best to keep the path ahead smooth and bipartisan.

Unlike the House, the Senate kept changes to the nutrition title minimal in its version.

CRP flexibility

Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) has attempted to increase the cap on CRP acres from the proposed 25 million acres to 26.25 million acres and does this by lowering the rental rate to 85% from the 85.5% agreed upon in the proposed version. More importantly, his proposal would allow haying and grazing flexibility by allowing the contract holder ability to hay or graze one-third of the forage rather than destroying it, as the current law requires.

In years of drought, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has offered forage from CRP ground to be used in case of emergencies. Thune wants that to be available rather than having to destroy a valuable commodity, especially when often it is needed later.

Thune explained that, overall, it would allow an increase in the acre cap, but it also provides flexibility in management of those acres in a way supported by those who benefit directly as well as other groups, such as Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and additional wildlife groups.

In the end, Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) said the bill she and Roberts agreed to increased acres from 24 million to 25 million and tried to do this without cutting rental rates at such a steep level that would make CRP less attractive to producers. The House version proposed 29 million acres but does so with rental rates at 80% of county averages.

Thune did not seek a vote during committee but sought assurance that his amendment could get a vote on the floor. Senate Agriculture Committee leaders stopped short, but Stabenow did say she could get behind some of the provisions that offer flexibility for haying and grazing.

Hemp provisions

Sen. Mitch McConnell saw successful inclusion of his legislation to legalize industrial hemp and the importance of including his Hemp Farming Act of 2018 in the farm bill. Building on the success from the pilot program he championed in the 2014 farm bill, the Hemp Farming Act will remove federal roadblocks to industrial hemp. 

McConnell said he had made adjustments in the days heading up to the markup to incorporate suggestions from concerned members, including those from the judiciary committee, where some argued should have jurisdiction over the issue. He said changes included: clarifying that the secretary of agriculture can consult with state attorneys general on issuing guidance, that the legislation does not alter the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, and overall improved integrity and conducts oversight to not allow anyone who has been convicted of a felony drug offense to be allowed to plant hemp.

Payment limits

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) was the lone “no” vote out of committee because the bill didn’t include his amendment to tighten payment limitations.

“Farm programs should provide temporary, limited assistance to farmers when there’s a natural disaster or an unforeseeable, sudden change in market prices. Setting sound, enforceable limits to farm safety net payments is a straightforward way to exercise fiscal responsibility and close loopholes that exploit the intent of farm programs that allow some non-farmers to game the system and take resources away from real, working farmers. I’ve been an advocate for making these reforms for more than a decade, so you can imagine my disappointment that they weren’t included in the committee’s legislation,” Grassley said.

He intends to offer an amendment on the Senate floor to include commonsense payment limits in the 2018 farm bill. “A similar amendment passed the Senate in the last farm bill and should pass again,” Grassley said.

Grassley spoke earlier this week at the Heritage Foundation about the importance of fiscally responsible reforms to the farm bill. Grassley also wrote an op-ed about his work to make the 2018 farm bill fairer to farmers.

TAGS: Policy
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