Congress heads into an election year with clouds over two major pieces of legislation that are seen as critical to helping farmers benefit from efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
At the same time, lawmakers are expected to begin farm bill hearings this year amid significant uncertainty about the outcome of the congressional elections in November and how much new funding could be available for writing the legislation.
The outcome of the November midterm elections could flip control of either or both houses to Republicans in time for Congress to write the new farm bill. Authority for many programs in the 2018 farm bill expires in late 2023 or with the end of the 2023 crop year.
No schedule for farm bill hearings has been released by either the House or Senate Ag committees. But House Ag Chairman David Scott, D-Ga., indicated he wanted to start hearings as soon as January, and Republicans in both the House and Senate are likely to criticize Democrats for any delays.
President Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion Build Back Better bill, which is currently stalled in the Senate, stands to figure large in terms of the amount of funding Congress will have to spend on a new farm bill. The bill includes some $80 billion in climate-related agriculture provisions, with much of the money earmarked for farm bill programs.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced just ahead of Christmas that he was opposed to the House-passed bill and told reporters Tuesday that there have been no negotiations over the legislation since then.
He has not ruled out considering changes to the legislation, though he continued Tuesday to press his concerns about the bill’s impact on inflation and a particularly costly provision extending an expanded child tax credit.
“To do some of the things that (have) been proposed takes more of a majority than what we have,” said Manchin, referring to the fact that the Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the deciding vote.
Senate Democratic leaders have turned away from the Build Back Better bill, at least for now, to focus on voting rights legislation. But Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., insisted again on Tuesday that the Senate would eventually vote on the BBB measure.
"I intend to hold a vote in the Senate on Build Back Better, and we’ll keep voting until we get a bill passed,” he said.
Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., separately told reporters Tuesday the Senate would return to the BBB bill once the voting rights bill is addressed.
The bill’s agriculture provisions aren’t controversial among Democrats, but could possibly be trimmed somewhat as the overall bill is scaled back, said one farm bill lobbyist.
“I think they’ll eventually get (the overall bill) boiled down enough that Manchin can support it,” the lobbyist said.
The legislation includes several provisions intended to scale up the adoption of cover crops and other climate-related conservation practices and to address climate change through forestry. The bill would authorize payments of $25 an acre to farmers who plant cover crops, increase funding for farm bill conservation programs by more than $20 billion and provide for $2.35 billion in conservation technical assistance over 10 years.
Meanwhile, there are signs of life for the second, and smaller, ag climate bill, the Growing Climate Solutions Act, a Senate-passed measure aimed at speeding the development of agricultural carbon markets. The measure, which the Senate approved 92-8 in June, would put the Agriculture Department in charge of certifying farm advisers and credit verification services.
The House Ag Committee is expected to take up the measure later this month, according to a spokesman for the bill's lead House sponsor, Abigail Spanberger, D-Va.
Scott told Agri-Pulse in December that there would be some modifications to the Senate-passed measure and that he had discussed the bill's timing with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
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Andrew Walmsley, senior director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, told Agri-Pulse Republicans have been negotiating in good faith with Scott on possible changes to the bill that he didn’t specify.
“There's been a renewed focus” on the bill “to try to find a path forward here in the new year on moving that legislation in the House,” he said.
Any modifications to the bill in the House would require the measure to be returned to the Senate for another vote.
Meanwhile, the most critical agenda item facing Congress is to keep the government funded through the rest of the 2022 fiscal year, which started Oct. 1. There has been no sign of progress in talks between Republicans and Democrats on fiscal 2022 spending bills. Democrats and Republicans have yet to even agree on what the spending limits should be for FY22.
A continuing resolution funding the government at fiscal 2021 levels is set to expire on Feb. 18. If negotiators can’t agree on fiscal 2022 spending legislation before then, Congress will have to pass another stopgap bill or risk a partial government shutdown.
The House passed its FY22 funding bill for USDA and the Food and Drug Administration in July, and the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a different version of the measure in August. Both versions include increases in funding for agricultural research and rural broadband expansion.
A temporary extension of USDA’s authority to collect livestock market data expires when the CR does on Feb. 18. A longer-term extension of the price reporting authority could provide a vehicle for enacting reforms to cattle industry pricing, but it’s not clear that lawmakers can reach an agreement on what to do.
Iowa GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley and allies on both sides of the aisle want to force packers to buy more cattle on the open market. Grassley reiterated Tuesday that he would like to get the reforms attached to an extension of the price reporting program. He acknowledged that his proposals continue to face opposition in Texas and Kansas, states with large feedlots that are heavily involved in contracting with packers.
The House last month passed a related measure that would create a beef contract library at USDA to provide producers with more information on industry practices. A second House bill passed in December would reauthorize the livestock price reporting system through September.
Also in December, the House passed, 364-60, a bill aimed at stopping ocean carrier companies from refusing to load U.S. agricultural and other goods for exports to Asia and around the globe. Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., are expected to introduce a similar bill in the Senate.
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