House farm bill version concerns some groups

Washington — Whether Congress is closer to passing a new farm bill than it was earlier this month is debatable, but for the first time in several years, the House has passed a version of the legislation, albeit minus a portion that consumes about three-quarters of the current bill’s spending.

The House by a narrow margin, approved a federal farm bill that doesn’t include the food stamp program, or nutrition title, which a month ago caused a bill brought to the House floor to tumble to defeat. The vote last week was 216-208, all Democrats voting no.

House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas, R-Oklahoma, called passage “ … an important step toward enacting a five-year farm bill this year …”

As a whole, conservation groups weren’t as keen on the conservation program aspects of the bill, which for the most part resembled the bill brought to the House floor in June.

According to the Democratic office of the House Agriculture Committee, the bill would cut about $6 billion from conservation over a 10-year period. It also would reduce the CRP program to 24 million acres.

Further, conservation group leaders say, it doesn’t relink conservation compliance with crop insurance subsidies, and the “sodsaver” provision is regional, rather than national, as it is in the Senate-passed farm bill.

Currently, members of Congress are hashing out the next steps.

Meanwhile, most critical of the House bill may have been Environmental Working Group president for government affairs, Scott Faber, who called it “the most fiscally irresponsible piece of farm legislation in history.

“No one who voted for this terrible bill can reasonably claim to be fiscally conservative,” Faber said in a press statement.

Ducks Unlimited, too, was unimpressed.

“The House farm bill, even in its intact (with the nutrition title) form, didn’t make conservation a priority,” said Dale Hall, DU’s CEO, in a press release. He cited a wetland amendment in the bill that fails to recognize the “function and value” of a lost wetland during the mitigation process.

DU notes the sodsaver provision in the House bill would only cover the states of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Montana.

The lack of “re-coupling” language, linking conservation compliance to crop insurance payments, was particularly troubling for DU, as well as other conservation groups, especially considering a variety of parties, including agricultural groups and others, had sent a letter to House leaders earlier this year, supporting the measure.

“Ducks Unlimited was among the 532 agriculture and conservation organizations that sent a letter to Speaker Boehner, R-Ohio, asking the House for bipartisan support of a comprehensive, intact farm bill,” Hall said in a statement. “Again, it is extremely frustrating that a coalition of such a number of broad interests can find common ground in our need for long-term agriculture policy, and a Congressional body of almost 100 fewer members chooses to ignore our recommendation.”

Steve Kline, director of government relations for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said his organization favored keeping the farm bill intact. “It’s been a bipartisan farm bill process forever,” he said.

The House bill, he said, contains another item of concern. It doesn’t provide permanent authorization for conservation programs (like it does for some ag programs). That, Kline said, means programs like CRP could theoretically sunset in the future.

Like DU, Kline said the TRCP, too, is concerned with the lack of reconnect between conservation compliance and crop insurance. He predicts a “drainage free-for-all” should the provision not be included in final bill language.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. Currently, Congress has only about 10 working days left before the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, which also signals the expiration of the current farm bill.

On the Hill, there were differing versions about how to proceed. Officials from the House Ag Committee said the House version could be “conferenced” with the Senate version that includes food stamps. But questions lingered whether a conference committee could produce a product palatable for House Republicans adamant about cuts in the food stamp program.

Some House leaders, too, said they wished to pass a bill addressing the nutrition title, which could be included in conference committee discussions.

Passing a split bill could result in no farm bill at all. If that were the case, another extension of the farm bill, similar to last year, is possible. That’s something that worries groups like the TRCP.

Programs like the Grassland Reserve Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program, which don’t have baseline funding, could eventually dry up.

Those programs, and others, would “basically cease to exist,” Kline said, unless they were singled out and funded in a farm bill extension bill.

Even now, Kline said, federal officials from the Natural Resources Conservation Service who administer the program are taking a cautious approach in promoting the program and taking landowners aboard, as uncertainty about future funding looms.

Conservation groups view more favorably the Senate farm bill, which includes re-coupling of conservation compliance with crop insurance, a nationwide sodsaver provision, and other measures.

However, the Senate bill cuts the food stamp program by just a half-percent. The dissected food stamp section of the House farm bill would’ve cut about 3 percent from the program, with some Republicans saying even greater cuts should be made.

In its entirety, the farm bill would cost taxpayers about $100 billion annually.

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