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Farm Bill, Just Another in a Roster of Disappointments?

Senate and House negotiators tacitly acknowledged on Wednesday that the 2018 farm bill, like most of its recent predecessors, will be late, due to intractable disagreements. The delay could add the bill, long viewed as an election-year certainty for passage, to a list of agricultural disappointments that includes a trade war, low farm income, sluggish work on trade pacts, and inaction on corn ethanol.

SNAP is the salient issue for the 2018 farm bill, just as it was for the 2014 farm law, which was signed by President Obama 16 months after the 2008 law expired. House Republicans are pressing for stricter work requirements and tighter eligibility rules for food stamp recipients.

“Each of us is still at the negotiating table, and we remain committed to working together on a farm bill,” said the four farm bill leaders in a three-sentence statement. “Our conversations are productive, and progress toward an agreement is taking shape. We are going to get this right.”

The so-called big four, the Republican chairmen of the Senate and House Agriculture committees and the senior Democrats on the committees, did not predict when they would complete a compromise bill. They have met more than a dozen times so far, “and continue to meet regularly and often to reach agreement,” said press aides. The current law expires on Sunday. Committee leaders have spoken often of their desire to provide “the certainty and predictability” of on-time enactment of the five-year, $430-billion bill.

There is limited time to wrap up a farm bill before the November 6 elections, so it might be completed during the postelection session. Forecasts of Democratic gains in the House have added a layer of political complexity to farm bill maneuvering.

House leaders plan a recess beginning October 13 so representatives can campaign for reelection. The Senate will be in session for most of October. At the start of this week, the National Corn Growers Association urged Congress to pass the farm bill before the election.

“We know the angst in farm country right now,” said House Agriculture chairman Michael Conaway and Representative Collin Peterson, the senior Democrat, in a statement. “Between low prices, droughts, flooding, hurricanes, and the retaliatory tariffs of our trading partners, there is hurt in the heartland.”

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley told farm bill negotiators that there was broad support for his provision to allow only one “manager” per farm to collect subsidies; the House would loosen payment rules. As proof of his point, Grassley sent a letter of support signed by Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip; Representative Mark Meadows, a leader of the House Freedom Caucus, which helped defeat the House farm bill in May; and Representative Ron Kind, a farm policy reformer.

Since June, the price of soybeans at the export terminal in New Orleans has fallen by more than $2 a bushel, said the American Soybean Association. “If this trade war is not resolved soon, we will see irreversible consequences,” said the group.

Although when President Trump took office, he declared an era of bilateral trade agreements rather than multination pacts, the administration has been slow to deliver on new agreements. The exception is a revamped U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement signed this week, though it made few changes in agricultural trade rules. South Korea is the No. 6 market for U.S. farm exports, with purchases estimated at $8 billion this year. Canada, Mexico, and China, the three largest customers, are forecast to buy a combined $53 billion worth of agricultural exports.

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