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The Likelihood of an On-Time Farm Bill

Will ‘All Farm Bill, All the Time’ Deliver a Farm Bill on Time?

Whenever he talks about the 2018 farm bill, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway says his goal is “a good farm bill passed on time.” The elements of a successful farm bill may be debatable, but enacting a farm bill ahead of the September 2018 expiration of current law would seem an unremarkable matter of course.

Yet, it’s not. Congress hasn’t enacted a farm bill on schedule since 1990. The current law was derailed by a fight over food stamp cuts and took effect in February 2014, 16 months later than planned. “Things are tough right now, and they are likely to get a lot worse before they get better,” says Conaway, who has put the farm bill at the top of the committee agenda. “There are holes in the farm safety net that need mending.”

So, Conaway began the footwork last month that would lead to a House vote as early as this fall, but more likely early 2018. “That’s the main goal. It’s all farm bill, all the time,” says Conaway, who wants to complete work in plenty of time to write the final compromise bill with Senate negotiators and steer it to passage. The Senate Agriculture Committee also is on the move. It held its first field hearing on February 23 in Kansas.

“Ag policy-makers will likely spend most of 2017 on issues much bigger than the farm bill,” say economists David Widmar and Brent Gloy, who believe a half-dozen topics may well demand attention. There are potential upheavals in U.S. farm exports, courtesy of President Trump’s trade policy, including Mexico’s threats of retaliation against U.S. tariffs or taxes on Mexican goods. Renegotiation of NAFTA could begin this summer.

Then there’s the question of whether the new administration will change the biofuels mandate, despite President Trump’s assurances that “renewable fuels are essential to America’s energy strategy,” and “the gigantic issues” of immigration reform, overhaul of health care law, tax reform, and how to pay for a massive infrastructure package, say Gloy and Widmar.

Most of those issues are outside of Agriculture Committee control, but they could block the road for the farm bill. Congress can do only one or two things at a time.

Conaway and Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the senior Democrat on the committee, are campaigning for additional money for crop supports for the new farm bill. That question will be decided in coming months in the face of Trump’s calls for massive shifts in federal spending. Depending on the answer, it could ease or crimp the process of writing the farm bill. Conaway says he needs the “budget flexibility” to write good policy and worry later about how to pay for it.

Cotton and dairy producers say the insurance-like supports created by the 2014 law are failures, while grain and soybean growers complain about absurdly large county-to-county variations in payments under the Agriculture Risk Coverage subsidy. All of those could be expensive to fix. 

A year ago, university economists estimated it would cost $1 billion a year to create the cottonseed oil subsidy that growers wanted. Outlays for cotton and dairy supports are small under current law, so there is little money to finance a revamped and more generous program.

Nonetheless, Conaway expects the 2018 bill to be “a fine tuning” of existing programs. “I don’t anticipate, other than cotton, any big new programs,” he said at USDA’s annual Outlook Forum. 

One attendee asked how to tell if a farm bill is a success. “I guess the bottom line would be how many people do we keep farming,” replied Conaway. “The ultimate success is keeping them on the farm and maintaining that most affordable food price in any developed country.”

This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.

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