Lawmakers likely won’t start writing a new farm bill for several months, but budget estimates due to be released this week will shape the debate over the legislation.

The Congressional Budget Office on Wednesday is expected to release its 10-year cost estimate for existing farm bill programs, including commodity support programs as well as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which accounts for about 80% of farm bill spending.

The CBO estimates of farm bill costs are critical because those projected spending levels, or baseline, define the limit for how much the House and Senate Ag Committees can spend on a new bill unless Congress agrees to increase funding for the legislation.

Also this week, the House Agriculture Committee will hold a farm bill listening session at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, California, and the Senate Agriculture Committee holds a hearing on SNAP and other nutrition assistance programs.

At least seven House Ag members are expected to join House Ag Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., at the Tulare listening session, which is likely to include significant discussion of policies affecting dairy and specialty crops. In addition to the committee’s California members, David Rouzer, R-N.C., and John Rose, R-Tenn., are expected to attend.

The Senate Ag hearing on Thursday will be the first time that Stacy Dean, USDA’s deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, has appeared before the committee to defend the department’s modifications to the Thrifty Food Plan, a model of food costs that is used by USDA to determine the size of SNAP benefits that is supposed to reflect the cost of a healthy diet for a budget-conscious family.

The committee’s top Republican, John Boozman of Arkansas, and Thompson said a Government Accountability Office report released in December showed the process USDA used for modifying the TFP in 2021 was “marred by egregious executive overreach, lacked an economic peer-review process, and included flawed — even legally questionable — decision-making.”

President Joe Biden nominated Dean last May to be undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, but she never got a hearing before the Ag Committee amid GOP anger about her management of the TFP update. Biden renominated Dean in January.

The committee will have the new CBO baseline in hand when Dean appears before the committee on Thursday.

CBO has already sharply increased its cost estimates for SNAP in part because of the TFP update. CBO's last forecast of SNAP costs, issued in May 2022, estimates the program will cost taxpayers $107.5 billion in 2030, nearly $30 billion more than CBO had estimated for the program's 2030 cost in July 2021.

Under the 2018 farm bill, USDA is supposed to update the TFP again in 2026 and 2031, aCBO mayill adjust its forecast accordingly on Wednesday, congressional aides say. If so, that could increase the 10-year cost estimate for SNAP and put a bigger target on the farm bill’s nutrition title.

The CBO estimates also could alter projected costs for two major commodity programs, including the Price Loss Coverage and Agriculture Risk Coverage programs and for crop insurance, depending on what market prices CBO economists plug into their forecast.

“Price projections will drive estimated outlays for ARC and PLC,” Patrick Westhoff, who directs the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, said in an email to Agri-Pulse.

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“Given the way moving averages work in determining ARC and PLC payments, it’s easy to imagine a significant increase in outlays a few years down the road, if CBO’s baseline has prices dropping back somewhat from 2022-23 levels.” 

The cost of the crop insurance would similarly be affected by CBO’s estimate of future commodity prices, “since premiums and premium subsidies vary with the value of crops insured,” Westhoff said.

Also this week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will focus on the future of federal biofuel policy. One of the witnesses, Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Geoff Cooper, said he will make the case for “how ethanol and a market-oriented clean fuels policy can help our nation achieve a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.”

Here is a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere (all times EST):

Monday, Feb. 13

Crop Insurance Industry annual convention, Bonita Springs, Fla.

National Association of State Departments of Agriculture winter policy conference, Renaissance Arlington Capital View, through Wednesday.

National Association of Conservation Districts annual meeting, New Orleans.

Tuesday, Feb. 14

World Ag Expo, Tulare, Calif.

8:30 a.m. — Bureau of Labor Statistics releases the monthly Consumer Price Index.  

1 p.m. — House Agriculture Committee farm bill listening session, Tulare.

Wednesday, Feb. 15

10 a.m. — Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, “The Future of Low Carbon Transportation Fuels and Considerations for a National Clean Fuels Program,” 406 Dirksen.

3 p.m. — USDA releases Agricultural Projections to 2032.

Thursday, Feb. 16

8:30 a.m. — USDA releases Weekly Export Sales report.

10 a.m. — Senate Agriculture Committee farm bill hearing on nutrition programs, 328A Russell.

Friday, Feb. 17

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