Progressive groups pushing for reforms to farm policy and opposed to nutrition assistance cuts and environmental provisions in the House-passed farm bill say Congress would be better passing no new legislation at all unless it’s similar to the bipartisan Senate version.
“No farm bill is better than a bad farm bill,” said Monica Mills, executive director of Food Policy Action, a research and advocacy organization that rates members of Congress on their votes on agriculture and food policy.
“We support a farm bill that is closer to the Senate version and we would like to see it happen yet this year,” she said.
The 86-11 vote by which the Senate passed its farm bill in June sent “a very, very strong message that it is the path forward. It is the only viable path forward,” said Ferd Hoefner, senior strategic adviser for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. The House passed its version 213-211 over united Democratic opposition.
Hoefner and Mills appeared at a news conference Monday with representatives of the Environmental Working Group, Natural Resources Defense Council, Union of Concerned Scientists and the Food Research and Action Center.
The four lead farm bill negotiators - the chairmen and ranking Democrats of the House and Senate Agriculture committees - have been struggling to resolve a series of disputes over a range of differences between the House and Senate bills but say they remain committed to reaching an agreement that Congress can consider after the Nov. 6 election. Unless a new bill is enacted in December, Congress will have to pass an extension of the 2014 farm bill, which expired Sept. 30.
In an interview last week as the Senate was finishing its last pre-election votes, Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said that political pressure was building on the negotiators to reach a deal that can be passed during the lame duck session. He indicated that the four negotiators have agreed to cost limits for each of the bill’s titles but are still debating policy differences.
“We already have an agreement on spending caps, it’s just what we do within those titles … All of us have told staff to get this done," he said.
Among the issues on which the negotiators are making progress, he said, is a provision in the House bill that would eliminate payments on base acres that have not been planted to commodity program crops in the past decade. That provision would offset the cost of allowing some farmers in southern Plains states to increase the yield averages that are used for calculated payments under the Price Loss Coverage program. The yield update would be limited to farmers who had experienced 20 consecutive weeks of drought.
House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, argues that payments on unplanted base acres are no longer warranted and that the money is needed to help farmers whose payment rates were depressed by a series of droughts.
Interested in more news about the farm bill, trade issues, pesticide regulations and more hot topics?
Sign up here for a four-week Agri-Pulse free trial. No risk and no obligation to pay.
But Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, said the provisions would unfairly reward cotton growers in Conaway’s home state to the detriment of farmers in other regions.
“There is simply no reason to give cotton farmers a raise in part because we’ve already given cotton farmers a raise,” he said, referring to the February budget agreement that made cotton growers eligible for PLC payments.
The groups also criticized a series of environmental policy provisions in the House bill, including one that would eliminate the Obama-era “waters of the United States” rule that expanded the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. Another provision would allow EPA to approve pesticide registrations without going through the formal Endangered Species Act consultation process, which requires the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to assess whether usage of the chemicals would harm a threatened or endangered species.
“What we need to consider is that the arithmetic to get the House to pass a bill and to get the Senate to pass the same bill suggests that including these riders is going to kill the bill,” said Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council, referring to the fact that a partisan bill is unlikely to pass the Senate. Sixty votes are needed to break a Senate filibuster, and Republicans hold just 51 seats.
For more news, go to www.Agri-Pulse.com.