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What’s Up in Washington, D.C.

SNAP is still the stickler in the farm bill.

One thing about Washington, D.C., is that there’s always something going on — good or bad. Last month, the North American Agricultural Journalists held its annual meeting at what some call Disneyland East. Here are some of the things that legislators and policy-makers discussed.

SNAP is the sticking point in the farm bill.

No surprise here. That was the case in mid-April when I was there, and it’s still the case. A vote on the U.S. House’s farm bill draft crashed and burned, partly due to work requirements placed on able-bodied Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients. (A bill to restrict immigration that house leadership refused to schedule an immediate vote on also helped sink the bill.)

In the end, 213 House members voted against the House farm bill vs. 198 who voted for it. All Democrats voted against it and were joined by some moderate Republicans and members of the House Freedom caucus, which consists of 30-some conservative Republicans.

Traditionally, farm bills have been bipartisan bills, particularly when it comes to hunger issues. The late Senator George McGovern (D-SD) and retired Senator Robert Dole (R-KS) would rub each other raw over the merits or demerits of the Vietnam War, but they came together to work on farm bills and hunger issues. That’s no longer the case. “I think there is an intrinsic lack of the middle anymore,” says John Larson, executive director of programs for American Farmland Trust. He recalls one legislator who told them he was not elected to compromise, but to represent his constituents.

House leaders have scheduled another farm bill vote in the near future.  

The money’s flowing in D.C.

“We are spending money like it is going out of fashion,” says Zach Clark, director of government relations for the National Farmers Union (NFU). “We are juicing the economy when the economy is chugging along.” A combination of spending bills and tax cuts are fueling a deficit that’s expected to rise to nearly 100% of gross domestic product by 2028.

Trade is a worry.

The cancellation of the Trans Pacific Partnership, trade spats with China, and renegotiation of NAFTA have lots of folks on edge. “The NAFTA agreement has been beneficial for agriculture,” says Steve Censky, USDA undersecretary. “We want to make sure we do no harm.”  

“What I am surprised about is there is no talk about how the Brazilians and Argentineans might take our markets away from us,” says Representative Collin Peterson (DFL-MN). “This is a bigger concern, more so than anything else. But for some reason, people are not concerned about them taking our markets.”

USDA is helping farmers with climate change.

In other departments like the EPA, accepting the overwhelming scientific consensus behind manmade climate change is taboo.

USDA, though, is helping farmers navigate their way through it.  

“We have a number of research projects under way, trying to find what we can do to make agriculture more resilient to changes in weather and climate,” says Censky.  He says USDA just announced $80 million in new funding to examine system approaches to deal with weather and climate extremes, such as using cover crops in combination with other cropping and management techniques.

USDA’s climate hubs, established in 2014, also remain intact.

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