House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn Thompson says the House will move its farm bill ahead of the Senate this year, and he’s pledging to work with the Budget Committee to ensure the legislation is adequately funded. 

“The House has the pen this time around,” the Pennsylvania Republican told reporters after an unofficial listening session in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on Friday. 

The House committee also acted first in moving the 2018 farm bill; the Senate went first in developing what became the 2014 measure.

Passing a bill this year in the deeply partisan House, which Republicans narrowly control 222-212, is likely to be much more difficult than in the Senate, especially if GOP conservatives demand the legislation include cuts to nutrition assistance. Farm bills initially failed on the House floor in both 2013 and 2018. 

Thompson said he would be communicating with Budget Chairman Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, about funding needs for the bill. Arrington is a former House Ag member whose district includes one of the nation’s largest cotton producing regions. Thompson said he expected the Budget Committee to move a budget resolution that will guide spending in the farm bill and other pieces of legislation. 

House Republicans have said repeatedly that they will demand cuts in spending in return for supporting an increase in the federal debt ceiling. 

“We'll obviously be engaged with the Budget Committee in writing, and more importantly, personally,” Thompson said. He did not say whether he would seek an increase in the bill’s funding, or baseline. 

Thompson told reporters it was too soon to know the priorities for funding in the farm bill.  

“Let's have the hearings in Washington,” he said. “Let's do the listening sessions around the country. And let's figure out what the true needs and opportunities are. And then … go back and see what we can and cannot fund,” he said. 

Separately, the top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, David Scott of Georgia, released a statement Friday laying out his five priorities for the farm bill, starting with “appropriate funding” for rural broadband expansion. “USDA knows what works for our rural communities better than many other federal agencies and will provide a more immediate solution to our rural communities who do not have adequate and affordable broadband access,” the statement says. 

The Federal Communications Commission and the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration also are involved in distributing funding for broadband expansion.

Other priorities for Scott:  

  • Making permanent the 1890 Land Grant African American College and Universities Student Scholarship Program and providing it with an additional $100 million. 
  • ”Extending and strengthening the safety net” for livestock producers.
  • Protecting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other nutrition programs. “We need to maintain the nutrition safety net and examine any gaps in coverage while ensuring that job opportunities, education, and training are available,” the statement says.. 
  • Increasing the availability of technical assistance to producers using farm bill conservation programs. 

Eight House members in addition to Thompson participated in Friday’s listening session, held at the Pennsylvania Farm Show: Democrats Dwight Evans of Pennsylvania and Chellie Pingree of Maine, and Republicans Austin Scott of Georgia, Doug LaMalfa of California, Mary Miller of Illinois, Derrick Van Orden of Wisconsin, Dan Meuser of Pennsylvania and Mark Alford of Missouri.

Scott, who is expected to chair the General Farm Commodities and Risk Management Subcommittee, stressed what he sees as the need to increase the reference prices used to trigger payments to farmers under the commodity programs for row crops. He suggested linking the reference prices to an Olympic moving average for commodity prices. An Olympic average disregards the single highest and lowest years.

“Reference prices today for our commodities were basically set in the 2014 farm bill,” he said.

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Witnesses at the listening session echoed many of Scott’s priorities as well as concerns that farm groups have been airing over the past year, including a desire to expand the availability of crop insurance and reduce its cost in some cases.

“The farm bill needs to have a robust forward-looking crop insurance program,” said Elizabeth Hinkel, representing the Pennsylvania Corn Growers, noting that only 65% of the state’s corn acreage was typically insured.  

Kay Rentzel, who spoke on behalf of the U.S. Sweet Potato and U.S. Peach councils, said crop insurance must be kept affordable to specialty crop producers.

Frank Stoltzfus, who spoke for the Pennsylvania Cattlemen’s Association, argued against adding a livestock title to the bill. A livestock title could be used to impose contracting and marketing restrictions on the industry.

“It would open the door to unnecessary regulations and mandates that would cause difficulty in getting a farm bill passed,” Stoltzfus said.

Witnesses representing the dairy industry pressed the need for reform to the way milk is priced under the federal milk marketing order system, but they differed on whether any changes should be implemented through the farm bill.

David Smith of the Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association said the reforms should be left to a hearing process managed by USDA. While that process would likely take longer, “the extra time allows the industry professionals to examine the proposal more thoroughly, leading to a smaller chance of negative unintended consequences,” he said.

But Sherry Bunting of the Grassroots Pennsylvania Dairy Advisory Committee said that process would take too long, asserting that there is an industry consensus to revert back to the formula in place before it was modified by an industry agreement implemented through the 2018 farm bill.

The industry yet to reach a broad agreement on reforms. 

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