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In Contrast to House, Senate Ag Leaders Announce No-Drama Farm Bill

The Senate Agriculture Committee will vote next week on a bipartisan farm bill that makes few changes to food stamps, farm supports, and crop insurance, a marked contrast to the decision by House Republicans to pursue welfare reform in their farm bill. The biggest argument at the Senate “mark up” was expected to be over tougher limits on subsidies.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday that he aims for Senate passage of the farm bill by the end of June. Congressional leaders want to enact the 2018 farm bill before the 2014 law expires on September 30, less than four months away. Their goal was put in doubt when the House defeated its farm bill, 198-213, in a partisan showdown over SNAP on May 18.

Senate Agriculture chairman Pat Roberts and the senior Democrat on the panel, Debbie Stabenow, said the committee vote on the farm bill, scheduled for Wednesday, will mean timely consideration of “a bipartisan bill that will provide much-needed certainty for agriculture, families, and rural America.” Details of the bill were not expected to become public until Friday due to last-minute glitches in drafting some of the bill’s language and assuring that the legislation would not cost more than the roughly $87 billion a year that is available.

“The good news is this is a boring bill. The bad news is this is a boring bill,” said Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Hoefner spoke wryly because while the Senate bill has none of the lightning-rod features of the House bill, improving its chances of passage, it also has few signature initiatives.

Stabenow said the Senate would not change SNAP work requirements or so-called categorical eligibility, which allows welfare recipients to be considered for SNAP benefits, reported Agri-Pulse. The House bill, now in limbo, would expand and toughen work requirements for “work-capable” adults ages 18 to 59 and tighten eligibility rules. Democrats say 2 million people would leave SNAP if the GOP proposals became law.

Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley says the farm bill ought to include a “hard” cap of $125,000 a year in subsidies per person and restrict the payments to farmers, their spouses, and one manager per farm. While the House and Senate voted for similar limits during work on the 2014 farm law, those provisions were deleted during the final round of negotiations. At present, there is a cap of $125,000 per person on subsidies, though the limits can be evaded by subdividing operations into several farms, each eligible for $125,000 in payments, or by declaring that additional people, usually family members, are eligible for payments because they provide labor or management.

“For me to vote for a farm bill, I am going to have to have a very strong one-manager point of view,” said Grassley during a teleconference on Tuesday. In his view, payment limits are needed to assure that farm program benefits are focused on family-size farms rather than flowing into the pockets of big operators. Under current law, people with up to $900,000 a year in adjusted gross income — the amount doubles for a married couple — are eligible for subsidies. The Senate bill would reduce the AGI limit to $700,000 per person, said Agri-Pulse.

House Republicans plan a vote by June 22 on reviving their farm bill, though the plan assumes that lawmakers can first agree on an immigration bill, and GOP consensus is elusive. Members of the hard-right Freedom Caucus have used the farm bill as leverage to force a vote on so-called Dreamers and other immigration issues.

The usual path to enacting a farm bill is for committees in the House and Senate to write a bill and for each chamber to pass its version. Negotiators from the House and Senate then write a final version for passage by both chambers before the bill goes to the president. There are other, more exotic ways to achieve passage in both chambers, although Agriculture Committee leaders have not yet suggested they will be needed to have a new farm bill in place by September 30.

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