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On Capitol Hill, Tentative Agreement for a ‘Status Quo’ Farm Bill

With congressional leaders calling the shots on forestry language, House and Senate negotiators reached tentative agreement Wednesday on a five-year farm bill that is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. With an incendiary proposal by House Republicans for strict SNAP work requirements apparently off the table, the $87-billion-a-year legislation would make few noteworthy changes in U.S. food and ag policy.

“It seems to be the most status quo farm bill that I can recall,” said former USDA Chief Economist Joe Glauber, who compared the 2018 iteration to bills written as long ago as 1977. “It seems like very minor changes.”

The 2018 farm bill would tweak the two-track system of crop subsidies created in 2014 and pay for an expansion of the land-idling Conservation Reserve Program by reducing the annual rent paid to landowners, based on common elements of the bills passed by each chamber. For farmers, the most welcome part of the bill would be the first chance since the 2014 farm law took effect to switch enrollment between the insurance-like Agricultural Risk Coverage subsidy and the traditionally styled Price Loss Coverage subsidy.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts and Senator Debbie Stabenow, the senior Democrat on the committee, used the same words — “very, very close” — at midday to describe the state of negotiations. A couple of hours later, they strengthened their language to say there was a tentative agreement on outstanding issues in the bill, subject to “scoring” by the Congressional Budget Office, which could stretch into next week. Roberts and Stabenow are the lead Senate negotiators. House Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway and Representative Collin Peterson, (D-MN) are the lead House conferees.

“I am excited about the progress that has been made,” said Conaway. “We’ve reached an agreement in principle, but we’ve got more work to do.”

Roberts and Stabenow declined to offer details of the tentative agreement. Since April, the headline issue has been the House Republican proposal for an estimated 7 million “work-capable” adults aged 18 to 59 to work at least 20 hours a week or spend equal time in job training or workfare to qualify for food stamps. The bipartisan Senate bill rejected that idea.

House and Senate negotiators reached a compromise on food stamps, although they have not yet described it. “It’s something that I support. I’ll leave it at that,” Stabenow told the Washington Post. In negotiations over what became the 2014 farm law, Stabenow prevented cuts in SNAP enrollment. Early this year, she said she would oppose policy changes in the farm bill that were designed to cut SNAP enrollment. The work requirements and stricter eligibility rules proposed by House Republicans would have reduced enrollment in the program by an estimated 1.3 million people.

The proposal for stricter SNAP work requirements fit hand in glove with President Trump’s support of new and stronger work requirements for beneficiaries of social programs. Trump has repeatedly called for work requirements in the farm bill but also acknowledged strong Senate opposition to the idea. House Republicans lost negotiating leverage when the November 6 elections gave the majority to the Democrats. Peterson, the incoming House Agriculture Committee chairman, has said the focus should be on restricting state power to waive the time limit — 90 days in a three-year period — for food stamps to so-called able-bodied adults aged 18 to 49 without dependents.

House and Senate negotiators also clashed over farm subsidy limits and the future of the green-payment Conservation Stewardship Program. The House also proposed a rule change that would have allowed growers in drought-afflicted areas of the Southern Plains to qualify for larger farm subsidies while making land in other regions ineligible.

Glauber said issues like the yield update or a proposed House mechanism for raising the reference prices that trigger subsidy payments “are relatively small” compared with the broad structure of national programs, although worthy of debate.

If SNAP work requirements are jettisoned, the farm bill is “primarily a status quo bill, I guess would be the best summary,” said Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. There would be no major changes to farm subsidies, public nutrition programs, or crop insurance. For conservation programs, money would shift somewhat from working lands stewardship to easement programs that retire fragile land from production or prevent development.

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