The Democratic-controlled House on Friday passed President Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion Build Back Better bill that includes $82 billion in agriculture provisions aimed at accelerating an historic shift toward climate-related farming practices.
The bill, which passed on a party-line 220-213 vote, would fund a range of progressive social policy priorities such as universal pre-K as well as climate-related measures totaling $550 billion. Maine Rep. Jared Golden was the lone Democrat to vote against the bill.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters the bill would benefit "virtually every family farmer in the country who's interested in cover crops, who's interested in conservation, who's interested in making sure that we continue to fund ... advanced research that will allow them to be more resilient and better protected " against the impact of climate change.
Democratic leaders were forced to delay the final vote until Friday morning after Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., took the floor at 8:38 a.m. Thursday evening and didn't stop talking until 5:10 a.m., variously attacking Democrats over the bill and what he said was their inattention to higher priorities, such as curbing China's geopolitical ambitions. McCarthy's stemwinder broke a record set by now-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, in 2018.
The Build Back Better bill could be scaled back somewhat in the 50-50 Senate in order to win the pivotal support of Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., but the agriculture provisions are largely noncontroversial.
Democrats are moving the bill through the budget reconciliation process so that it can pass the Senate by a simple majority vote and no GOP support. The House would have to vote on the modified version.
“I’m confident as the Senate reviews the importance of this bill and the significance it can have, particularly in rural America, that it will pass and get it to the president for his signature,” Vilsack said.
The bill would authorize $27 billion in new conservation funding, including a new, $5 billion program that would pay farmers $25 per acre for five years to plant cover crops. Farm bill conservation programs would get $22.3 billion in new funding, including $9 billion earmarked for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, $7.5 billion for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program and $4.1 billion for the Conservation Stewardship Program.
Another $600 million is designated for a new USDA program to measure the impact of conservation practices on greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration. In Vilsack's view, the program would dovetail with the department's plan to develop ways for farmers to market commodities as climate-smart.
The bill also includes $2 billion for agricultural research, plus $27 billion for forestry programs and $25 billion for clean energy, rural development and farmer debt relief.
In addition to those provisions, the bill would extend the $1-per-gallon tax credit for biodiesel and renewable diesel for five years and then replace that subsidy with a new clean fuel tax credit that would be based on carbon intensity and also extend to sustainable aviation jet fuel.
There also are about $10 billion in child nutrition provisions, including $6.6 billion to expand eligibility for free school meals and $3.3 billion for USDA’s Summer EBT program, which provides food assistance to when kids are out of school.
Jason Weller, vice president of Truterra, a unit of Land O’Lakes that is developing an ag carbon market, told Agri-Pulse that the conservation funding would be “transformational” and help close the gap between which climate-smart practices, such as cover crops, to carry out and what private companies and carbon markets can provide producers in payments in the near future.
According to a new Agri-Pulse poll, a majority of farmers say they would need to be paid at least $40 an acre to participate in carbon markets, a figure that is in line with what industry officials have been finding.
The funding for conservation funding hews closely to proposals made by the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, a coalition of the nation’s leading farm groups and some major conservation groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy.
The National Corn Growers Association, a FACA member, issued a statement noting the bill's conservation statements and the lack of "harmful tax changes" for farmers. Biden proposed, but the bill doesn't include, taxing appreciated assets at death, which would nullify the current benefit of stepped-up basis.
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But the American Farm Bureau Federation, a founding member of the alliance, came out in opposition to the legislation earlier this week. “While some elements of the reconciliation package would benefit agriculture, the massive amount of spending and tax increases required to pay for the plan outweigh the gains we would see in rural America,” AFBF wrote House members. AFBF also complained that the bill would fund increased Labor Department enforcement.
Former House Ag Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said of the bill, “Instead of addressing our country’s urgent crises- like skyrocketing inflation or a crippled supply chain, Washington Democrats are instead seizing on the opportunity to ram through a transformational agenda that millions of Americans never asked for, nor wanted."
But Senate Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who helped shape the agriculture and child nutrition provisions, said the legislation "is all about lowering costs for American families and making critical investments to help us combat the climate crisis – especially in partnership with our farmers, ranchers, foresters and rural communities."
Friday's vote came just hours after the Congressional Budget Office released its final cost estimate for the bill — $1.678 trillion over 10 years.
The Congressional Budget Office initially estimated that the bill would increase the deficit by $367 billion through 2031, but Thursday said the $80 billion allocated to the IRS for tax enforcement would yield an additional $207 billion in revenue. Because the $80 billion was included in the initial spending numbers, but the $207 billion in new revenue was not, CBO's estimate is that the bill would raise the deficit by $160 billion over 10 years.
Republicans on the House floor Thursday evening repeatedly said the bill would contribute to inflation and that the BBB would give tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires in so-called “blue states” by raising the cap on deductions of state and local taxes from $10,000 to $80,000. They also said the bill would empower the IRS to pry into Americans' finances by hiring thousands more agents.
But Democrats said it will give needed help to struggling families and their children, such as by providing $400 billion for child care and early learning programs, and enhancing protections under the Affordable Care Act. They also touted $150 billion in spending on affordable housing.
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