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Danger signs for 2023 farm bill in partisan rancor on Capitol Hill

Congress traditionally enacts the farm policy bills covering the gamut from crop subsidies to food stamps at the urging of a coalition of farm, conservation and anti-hunger groups.

A former USDA official said the 2023 farm bill could be in peril if there is a repetition of the political turbulence that temporarily derailed the omnibus legislation twice in the last eight years.

“The deep polarization and dysfunction really, really amplifies the uncertainties of how this farm bill unfolds in a Congress that has gotten very, very challenging to work through,” said assistant professor Jonathan Coppess of the University of Illinois. Coppess ran USDA’s farm subsidy agency from 2009-11 during the Obama era and wrote a 2018 book, “The Fault Lines of Farm Policy.”

The House defeated the normally bipartisan farm bill in 2013 and in 2018 in bitter fights over Republican proposals to reduce SNAP spending. The 2013 vote was the first-ever defeat of a farm bill on the House floor.

“We see warning signs all over the place,” said Coppess during a presentation at an Ohio State University ag conference on Friday.

Besides SNAP, he pointed to potential backlash from the $53 billion of trade war and coronavirus relief payments to farmers since 2018, the disparity of higher support levels for cotton and rice than corn, wheat and soybeans, questions of how to accommodate climate mitigation within the budgetary limits for the USDA, and a broader question of whether land stewardship should be given priority over commodity subsidies.

Beyond that, said Coppess, the pandemic may shape the farm bill. “We’re a long way away [from 2023] and it’s a pretty foggy path ahead.”

The traditional U.S. farm program might not survive if the long-time coalition of farm groups, anti-hunger activists, and conservation and environmental organizations splinters in 2023, he said. “Standing here in 2021, [I] do not see a path forward with the coalition broken up, or worse, turned against itself in some way. The farm support programs … are incredibly vulnerable politically,” he said. A minority of farmers received crop subsidies “so the political base around those really has challenges” to attract votes in Congress.

However awkward the marriage of public nutrition and farm support programs in the farm bill, it has given urban and rural lawmakers a reason to vote for the same legislation. Some conservative foes of SNAP have argued it would be easier to prune the program if it was severed from the “agriculture” parts of the bill.

Public nutrition programs, chiefly SNAP, account for three-fourths of farm bill spending. Crop insurance, land stewardship and farm subsidies were estimated to cost a combined $20 billion a year when the 2018 farm bill was passed.

Lawmakers often begin work on a farm bill a year or more before it is due, which could mean field hearings at some point in 2022.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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