WASHINGTON POST – JEFF STEIN – The Senate on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to approve an $867 billion farm bill, as Congress appeared poised to pass legislation that will help an agriculture industry battered by President Trump’s trade war.
In an 87-to-13 vote, the Senate approved legislation that allocates billions of dollars in subsidies to American farmers, legalizes hemp, bolsters farmers markets and rejects stricter limits on food stamps pushed by House Republicans.
The legislation will now head to the House, where it is also expected to pass, after lawmakers worked out a House-Senate compromise this month. President Trump expressed support for the legislation on Tuesday and said he expects it will be signed into law.
Congressional negotiators said they faced increasing pressure to complete the bill from farmers and ranchers who have suffered steep declines in commodities prices amid Trump’s ongoing trade war with China.
“We’ve been trying to point out this is no time for a revolutionary farm bill,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. “It’s time to get a bill done so our farmers have predictability and certainty during a very difficult time. We just have to do that.”
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue expressed support for the legislation in a statement Monday night.
“The farm bill is moving along nicely,” Trump said Tuesday during his meeting with congressional Democratic leaders. “We think the farm bill is in very good shape.”
Still, the bill has faced criticism, including from conservative Republicans. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), one of two farmers in the Senate and a member of the Agriculture Committee, said he would vote against the package over its expansion of federal subsidies to more-distant relatives of farmers, such as cousins, nephews and nieces. Grassley joined eight other Republicans in opposing the measure, which was supported by every Senate Democrat.
“I’m very disappointed the conferees decided to expand the loopholes on farm subsidies,” said Grassley before the vote. “I’ve been trying to make sure the people who get the subsidies are real farmers. … I’ve been trying for three years, and it gets worse and worse and worse.”
The full text of the farm bill was released on Monday night. Here’s what’s in and what’s out.
Cuts to food stamps are not in the bill. The most controversial element of the farm bill debate has been over differences between the House and Senate approaches to food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
House Republicans’ farm bill would have forced states to impose work requirements on those ages 49 to 59 who get food stamps. It would have also forced states to impose work requirements on parents with children ages 6 to 12, among other changes. One estimate found those proposals could mean that 1.1 million households would face cuts to benefits, although conservatives and Republicans contested those numbers.
The Senate version of the farm bill made none of those changes. The farm bill requires Democratic support to get the 60 votes it needs to pass the Senate, and those cuts are not in the final package, Roberts has confirmed.
Liberal groups have cheered the news. “The negotiators appear to have achieved a bipartisan compromise that maintains and modestly strengthens SNAP, ensuring that millions of struggling Americans will continue to be able to count on SNAP to help them put food on the table,” Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, said in a statement.
The bill includes SNAP revisions, although they won’t shrink individual benefits. The final bill does include several new changes to the SNAP program, though none will restrict families’ food stamp benefits, according to congressional aides.
Among them is a new National Accuracy Clearinghouse, which would prevent individuals from receiving food stamp benefits in multiple states. The final farm bill also eliminates an awards program that gave states up to $48 million a year in federal funding for high performances related to program access and payment accuracy.
The projected savings from these changes will be plowed back into food banks and other nutrition assistance programs, aides said.
Congress is not binding the White House on food stamps. The Trump administration has signaled its intention to cut food stamps without approval from Congress, and the farm bill does not bind the White House’s hands, according to congressional aides. The Agriculture Department has already floated weakening the waivers it gives states to temporarily suspend some food-stamp work requirements.
Some expanded farm subsidies. The farm bill mirrors at least some provisions in the farm bill passed by House Republicans, including in expanding some federal agriculture subsidies to nieces, nephews and first cousins of farmers — even if those relatives do not directly work on the farm.
The Environmental Working Group, which tracks federal farm subsidies, has criticized this provision as a wasteful giveaway to those who don’t contribute significant labor to farms. Congressional Republicans have defended the expansion as helping to encourage more people to be involved in farming.
No additional impact on the deficit. At close to $1 trillion a year, the farm bill’s price tag is high. But the bill’s drafters used the baseline set by the Congressional Budget Office under existing spending levels of $867 billion over the next 10 years, meaning it will not increase the federal deficit from prior projections. Congressional aides said late Monday night that they were awaiting a final score from the CBO.
Provides permanent funding for farmers markets, local food programs. The final farm bill also provides permanent funding for a number of programs that Congress had agreed to finance only on a temporary basis, of five years at a time.
For instance, the farm bill permanently secures funding for a program that funds and promotes local farmers markets, as well as a program to research challenges facing organic farmers. It also permanently allots money for organizations that work to train the next generation of farmers at a time when experts have raised concerns about the aging of the industry.
The bill also provides permanent funding to help veteran farmers and farmers who are minorities.
Conservation program preserved. The farm bill proposed by House Republicans had also proposed merging the Conservation Stewardship Program, which pays farmers to strengthen conservation efforts on their farms, into another branch of the Agriculture Department. The program will survive under the final version of the bill, aides said.
Legalizes hemp. The farm bill also legalizes the production of hemp, a form of cannabis with lower THC levels than marijuana. Analysts told CNBC that hemp could grow into a $20 billion industry by 2022.
Picture: Cows – Mike Groll – AP