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5 Things To Watch in 2018 Farm Bill and Agricultural Legislation

Proposed cuts will be on the table, but the good news is it’s easier to pass a Farm Bill when times are tough.

When Mary Kay Thatcher talks to farmers, they initially look at the map at states where President Trump won last November (rural areas). “They think, boom, we have anything we want,” says the senior director for congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau.

Not exactly.

Difficulties in Congress remain. She notes virtually anything other than reconciliation bills still require 60 votes in the U.S. Senate. With 52 Republicans in the Senate, 8 Democratic votes are still required to pass anything.

Initially, the makeup of the U.S. House of Representatives seems more friendly to farmers Thatcher speaks to, as it has 237 Republicans. A majority of 218 votes is sufficient to pass a bill. However, that number also includes the 32-member invitation-only Freedom Caucus, which consists of Republicans along the ultra-conservative and libertarian wing of that party. They aren’t as likely to support farm spending as other Republicans and many Democrats would be.

“We saw that in the health care vote,” she says. “The Freedom Caucus said it was not enough.” This helps create a hurdle in passing a farm bill in 2018. “This is my eighth farm bill,” says Thatcher. “Every one gets harder (to pass).”

The silver lining is that even though it’s a difficult time for farmers, it is easier to write a farm bill in times of low prices. Here are a few things that Thatcher and others who spoke at this week’s North American Agricultural Agricultural Journalist annual meeting in Washington, D.C., can expect to see during the 2018 farm bill debate and related agricultural legislation.

1. Food stamps will be scrutinized.

She notes House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX) will likely hold more hearings on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) on top of the ones he’s previous held.

“He wants to do some kind of reform to SNAP,” says Thatcher

What form that will take is unknown. Any reform would be a balancing act. There were moves during the last farm bill debate like one that would have taken $20 billion out of food stamps (also known as SNAP), but they failed, mainly along party lines.

2. Amendments will be watched.

Thatcher says what drew Farm Bureau’s concern the last time around were farm bill amendments. During the 2014 Farm Bill debate, Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) sponsored a measure that would have capped farm commodity payments at $250,000 per year for any one farm. It failed, 195 to 234.

A measure cosponsored by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) to reduce crop insurance premium subsidies by 15% for individuals or legal entities with over $750,000 adjusted gross income also failed. “It is an amendment that will come up again,” she says.

3. Crop insurance will be examined.

Thatcher notes that, currently, farmers pay 38% of crop insurance premiums, with the feds paying the remaining 62%. There likely will be efforts to make cuts in the federal portion of support or in the program.

One area that may be targeted is the Harvest Price Option (HPO). This is coverage that gives protection on lost production at the higher of the price projected just before planting time or the price at harvest. Farmers who forward-contract a share of their crop before harvest commonly use it. One thing that may help preserve the HPO is that it is a public-private partnership that some in the Trump administration support.

4. Trade policy will be revamped.

Most farm groups were dismayed that one of the first actions taken by President Donald Trump was to cancel the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Ray Starling, special assistant to the president for agriculture, trade, and food assistance, says trade still is a priority for the Trump administration.

“We produce more than we consume,” he notes. “We have to access new markets.”

It’s likely, though, that any existing trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement may be be toughened up. Starling says disputes over topics like biotechnology or intellectual property transfer or phytosanitary standards have to be based on established scientific standards.

5. Don’t make too much of proposed ag cuts in Trump’s budget.

The Trump administration’s budget did include 21% in cuts in discretionary spending for USDA. But it, like previous administrations’ budget proposals, will be dead on arrival, Thatcher says.


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