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So Far, 2018 Farm Bill Is ‘Stealth’ Legislation

Congress has not finished a farm bill on time since 1990.

Agriculture leaders in Congress are assembling the 2018 farm bill in private and have spoken more about the time line for the legislation than its contents or how they will resolve expensive proposals to expand commodity support, ag research, and conservation programs when there is no additional money to pay for them.

House Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway says the farm bill will “be ready when floor time opens up,” possibly later this year or early next year. “Right now (GOP lawmakers) are heavily focused on tax reform,” he said, “but that is not going to deter our work at the committee level.”

Ag lobbyists are skeptical of action soon because of the tax-cut debate and a showdown in early December on funding the government, another time-consuming task.

“I suspect House Ag goes first and starts relatively early next year and has few, if any, hearings,” said Mary Kay Thatcher of the Farm Bureau, pointing to the listening sessions and committee hearings that filled this year’s agenda. Other farm-bill observers regard the House committee as further advanced on the new farm bill than the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Conaway and the top Democrat on House Ag, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, have traded ideas for the farm bill and requested cost estimates on potential components of the new farm bill. “The biggest problem is we haven’t got any money,” Peterson said last month. Conaway has said he’ll call a bill-drafting session when he’s assured that floor debate will follow within a week or so. The Texas Republican says if there’s a protracted interlude, it will allow foes to gang up and make exaggerated criticisms of the bill.

“They want to minimize the grief and rush it through” without adequate review, said economist Vince Smith of Montana State University and a critic of crop subsidies and crop insurance. One veteran lobbyist says the plan to keep the bill under wraps could backfire: Would lawmakers support a bill they did not write? But the Republican majority has relied on that approach throughout the year, with leaders hatching major legislation with few public hearings and limited consultation with the rank and file.

By one estimate, the requests for a doubling of ag research spending, restoration of cuts in conservation programs, improvements to cotton and dairy supports, realignment of the county yields used in making ARC payments, higher PLC reference prices, and reallocating base acres would add $15 billion a year to farm bill costs.

Conaway has said he wants to make “meaningful reforms,” with a focus on work requirements and eligibility, in food stamps, the largest item in the farm bill. That could mean food stamp cuts in the range of $10 billion over a decade while the farm bill boosts outlays on other USDA programs, say lobbyists. “Farm bills are all about finding the money,” said economist Joe Glauber during a think tank discussion of the future of food stamps. The House defeated a farm bill for the first time ever in 2013 when Tea Party-influenced Republicans demanded $40 billion in cuts – the largest in a generation – and Democrats opposed any reductions.

Congress has not finished a farm bill on time since 1990. With commodity prices in a trough and farm income in a slump since 2013, farm groups say it is vital to complete the 2018 bill before the 2014 law expires next fall.

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