Republicans pushed their $1.5 trillion farm bill through the House Agriculture Committee early Friday with the help of four critical Democratic votes, giving the massive legislation some momentum as it heads to an uncertain future in the full House. 

The four Democrats who supported the bill were Don Davis of North Carolina, Yadira Caraveo of Colorado, Eric Sorensen of Illinois and Sanford Bishop of Georgia. The Democratic support was something of a rebuff to Senate Ag Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who had worked to unite committee Democrats against the bill.

The panel approved the bill, 33-21, after a rancorous debate that started at 11 a.m. Thursday and didn't end until after midnight Friday.

Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., told Agri-Pulse after the final vote that he didn't know whether he would have any Democratic support until the final tally, given the rhetoric during the debate. "I'm still shocked by it," he said of the outcome.

He said the bill wouldn’t get floor time before September at the earliest, but that it could at least help some lawmakers in their re-election races.

"If you're running for re election, a robust, highly effective and somewhat transformative farm bill is not a bad thing to campaign on," he said. 

Critics have said the bill has little chance of passing the House, given the narrow GOP majority, and the bill would be dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate. 

Davis, who is in a close re-election race in his northeast North Carolina district, had been pressed by some farm groups to support the bill despite his and other Democrats' concern about its impact on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

"This is a very important first step," Davis told Agri-Pulse following the vote. "And I think it's important to try and to signal that it is important for us to get to a strong, bipartisan farm bill. That's what the American people deserve."

It was a foregone conclusion that the committee could advance the bill. The big question was how many Democratic votes Thompson could win over. One Democrat after another, including those who are facing difficult re-election races in November, took turns stating their opposition. 

Much of their criticism was focused on a provision in the bill that would require any future updates of USDA's Thrifty Food Plan to be cost neutral. TFP is a model of food costs that is used to revise SNAP benefits. The restriction would save $27 billion in future benefit costs, with some of the money being used to pay for doubling trade promotion programs and to bolster programs for specialty crops. 

“There are reforms and improvements in this bill that my constituents would like to see,” said Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn. “But we can’t undermine the most effective anti-hunger program in our nation.”

The committee's top Democrat, David Scott of Georgia, blasted Republicans over the cut to nutrition spending, saying Republicans were trying to "murder" SNAP. “If you want a farm bill, you’ve got to take care of this program," he said.

Bishop challenged Thompson over CCC 'house of cards'

Democrats also criticized the bill for removing climate guardrails from Inflation Reduction Act’s conservation funding, which would be brought into the farm bill, and for a provision that would suspend USDA’s Section 5 spending authority under the Commodity Credit Corporation. 

Thompson is trying to use the CCC provision to cover the cost of increased commodity program payments and crop insurance subsidies, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates that CCC restriction only saves $8 billion over 10 years, far less than the cost of the changes to commodity programs and crop insurance titles. 

“This is the meanest cut of all” to farmers, Scott said of the CCC restrictions, adding that the fund has been used for disaster and trade war payments. 

Bishop, who ultimately supported the final bill, sponsored an amendment to remove the CCC restrictions from the bill, but it was defeated on a party-line vote. 

Bishop noted that they didn’t raise nearly as much money as Thompson needed for the commodity title. He suggested Budget Committee Chairman Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, would likely have to step in and order the savings estimate to be increased. 

“If Chairman Arrington and the speaker don’t go along with that, then the house of cards will collapse, and we won’t have the funding to go along with that,” Bishop said.

Thompson said he understands the “unease” that surrounds “tying” the agriculture secretary’s hands, but said Congress should control spending decisions. 

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“Increasingly, Section 5 is seen and used as a slush fund for any administration to pursue political pet projects entirely unrelated to directly supporting farmers,” Thompson said.

Republicans also defeated, 25-29, an amendment sponsored by Gabe Vasquez, D-N.M., that would have reinstated climate guardrails on the IRA funding, and a Hayes amendment that would have stricken the TFP cost neutrality provision, as well as provisions that would allow states to privatize some aspects of SNAP administration.

Arguing against the Hayes amendment, Republicans noted that SNAP benefits would continue to rise each year based on the rate of inflation, but the increases could be larger without the cost-neutrality provision. "This base text locks in inflationary increases," Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., said of the bill.

Pushing back on the complaints about the bill’s controversial funding sources, Thompson said Democrats provided him with “no alternative solutions” for funding outside of what has been proposed by Stabenow. She says she has an agreement with the Democratic leadership that would provide $5 billion to the bill, but she has not identified the source of that money. 

“The only reason the pay-fors have not been bipartisan is because, quite frankly, the Democratic party hasn’t been at the table,” Thompson said. 

En bloc amendment includes curb on hemp uses

The panel did approve 19 amendments to the bill, en bloc by a voice vote. While the majority of these included non-controversial measures, there was some opposition to an amendment by Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill., that proposed changing the definition of hemp to include “only naturally occurring, naturally derived, and non-intoxicating cannabinoids.”

Miller said some intoxicating, synthetic derivative hemp products are dangerously being marketed to children, and her amendment wolud return the definition to industrial purposes. 

Some Republicans on the committee spoke against this particular amendment, arguing it would preempt some state regulations, harm producers and is a rushed provision that could threaten the entirety of the farm bill. 

Although the bill’s path to enactment remains cloudy, the mammoth legislation would address many of the top priorities of commodity groups, including increases in reference prices and modifications to the Agriculture Risk Coverage and the Supplemental Coverage Option, a crop insurance product. 

The bill would boost commodity program spending by as much as $47 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. 

GOP committee aides said the increases in reference prices were designed to reflect relative increases in production costs since the rates were set in the 2014 farm bill. The Price Loss Coverage triggers payments when the average market price for a year is below the reference price for that year.

The statutory reference price for rice would be boosted by nearly 21% by the bill, while the rate for soybeans would be boosted 19%. Wheat would get an increase of 15.5%. The rate for cotton would go up by 13.5%. The corn reference price would rise 10.8%, although there is a cost-saving provision for corn that puts a floor under the PLC rate.

Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., said the bill would make the most significant investments in the farm safety net since 2002.

Thompson said, "Over the past few decades, the farm safety net has lost its ability to protect those who are the backbone of our great nation."

But the commodity title changes did draw some criticism from Midwestern Democrats. Shontel Brown, D-Ohio, for instance, said the cost-saving provision on the corn reference price was “a burden that will be felt by almost thousands of farmers in Ohio and countless others throughout the Midwest.”

Sorensen, who ultimately voted for the bill, said the “substantial increases in reference prices in Southern states does nothing to help my producers at home.”

However, the rules for ARC guarantee would be modified in ways that could significantly increase payments to corn growers and other farmers who choose that program. The bill also would cut the cost of buying  higher levels of area-based crop insurance through the Supplemental Coverage Option. The bill would raise premium subsidies from 65% to 80% and increase the top coverage level from 86% to 90%.

The bill also would allow for a voluntary update of base acreage, which farmers must have to qualify for ARC and PLC payments. The base update would be based on planted and prevented planting acreage from 2019 through 2023 and is expected to cost taxpayers $9.2 billion to $10.8 billion, according to CBO. If more than  an additional 30 million acres were eligible under the update, USDA would have to pro-rate the total.

Among other highlights of the bill:

  • The IRA funding that’s brought into the bill would be reallocated to provide a permanent, 25% increase in conservation funding. 
  • For producers of fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops, the bill would increase the mandatory funding level for the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program to $100 million annually, a $15 million increase from the 2018 farm bill, and allocate $20 million for research and development of mechanization and automation technologies.
  • Limits would be increased for USDA direct and guaranteed operating and ownership loans. 
  • Funding for the Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development programs, which are used to promote the sale of U.S. commodities overseas, would be doubled. 
  • Half of funding for the Food for Peace program would be earmarked for purchase of U.S.-produced commodities and related ocean freight.
  • A ban on SNAP benefits to drug felons would be repealed. 

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