US House of Representatives Passes Farm Bill, Senate Debates Own Version

28 June 2018

Congressional lawmakers in the US House of Representatives passed a new Farm Bill last week, with the legislation moving forward by a slim margin. However, sources familiar with the process note that the House version is far from final, given that the Senate version shows significant differences.

The bill was passed after support for the proposed legislation split along party lines, with 213 in favour and 211 against. Cuts to domestic US food aid proved to be one of the flashpoints in the debate, with Democrats opposing Republican efforts to establish additional conditions on work requirements for food aid recipients that critics say could curtail access and weaken a programme that is an essential component of the nutritional safety net. 

The bill, which also authorises support under US farm subsidy programmes, provides for US$867 billion in total outlays over a five-year period. 

However, difficulties in reconciling the House and Senate versions could delay adoption of the legislation, and whether US President Donald Trump would back the final version remains unclear. The existing 2014 Farm Bill, also known as the Agriculture Act, was passed only after successive delays and extensions. (See Bridges Weekly, 28 April 2016

“The House bill includes changes to the food stamp program that are very unlikely to survive in conference between the House and the Senate,” said Vincent Smith, Professor of Agricultural Economics at Montana State University, in comments to Bridges. 

Smith singled out in particular the proposed changes to existing work requirements under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, and clauses expanding the number of people associated with a farm who are eligible to receive farm subsidies.

Lawmakers react 

Reactions to the passage of the House Farm Bill varied widely among key lawmakers in the House Agriculture Committee, which had previously considered the legislation before it moved to the full House floor. (See Bridges Weekly, 26 April 2018

“Today’s vote was about keeping faith with the men and women of rural America and about the enduring promise of the dignity of a day’s work,” said House Agriculture Committee Chair Michael Conaway, a Republican from the US state of Texas, in a statement released on 21 June. 

“It was about providing certainty to farmers and ranchers who have been struggling under the weight of a five-year recession and about providing our neighbours in need with more than just a hand out, but a hand up,” Conaway added. 

In contrast, Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, a Democrat from the US state of Minnesota, issued a separate statement criticising the bill.

“The partisan approach of the majority has produced a bill that simply doesn’t do enough for the people it’s supposed to serve. It still leaves farmers and ranchers vulnerable, it worsens hunger, and it fails rural communities,” Peterson said. 

Peterson added that he hoped that the process of seeking to reconcile the House and Senate versions would produce a Farm Bill that could eventually be enacted into law. 

The Senate Agriculture Committee voted on its version of the legislation earlier this month. US Senator Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chairs that panel, told lawmakers on Tuesday 26 June that he hopes the process can move forward soon, and that the final version should provide “certainty and predictability during these very difficult times.” 

“We are endeavouring to craft a Farm Bill that meets the needs of producers across all regions and all crops. All of agriculture is struggling, not just one or two commodities. We must have a bill that works across our great nation,” he added, while also highlighting the importance of keeping in place voluntary conservation programmes, continuing to back trade promotion and research programmes, and make some key changes to the food stamp scheme. 

His Democratic counterpart on the committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, told the Senate the same day that the value of the Farm Bill for supporting American jobs was critical. Both Roberts and Stabenow have publicly backed the version being considered in the Senate. 

US farm groups, environmental orgs issue differing assessments

Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, issued a statement welcoming the outcome of the vote in the House, calling it a “big win for America’s farmers and ranchers.” 

However, environmental groups in the US were more critical. “The Farm Bill passed today by the House will create new loopholes that allow millionaires and billionaires to receive farm subsidies – regardless of whether they live or work on a farm,” said Scott Faber, Senior Vice President for Government Affairs at the Environmental Working Group (EWG). 

However, Smith told Bridges that neither the House nor the Senate versions of the bills “change the current structure of farm subsidy programmes in ways that reduce the amount of subsidies.” 

Aid groups also criticised the proposed changes to the food stamp programme, noting that the existing version already provides limited support to low-income recipients. The House version, Oxfam America Director of Policy and Research Gawain Kripke said in a blog post, would make it more challenging to qualify for support and would severely disadvantage poorer communities. 

“These changes are cruel and unproductive, and add to the bureaucracy and cost of the programme,” he said. 

Rising trade tensions prompt concerns from farmers

American farm groups have lately expressed concern that their agricultural exports are being targeted for additional tariffs from Washington’s trading partners, in response to separate unilateral US tariffs on steel and aluminium that the White House imposed following a Section 232 investigation. The US has justified these tariffs on national security grounds. 

An article published on 26 June in USA Today by US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue hinted that the government might roll out additional measures to help farmers that had been affected by new tariffs. 

“We have tools at our disposal to support farmers faced with losses that might occur due to downturns in commodities markets,” Perdue wrote. 

Farm subsidies that could cause trade distortions also remain controversial at the WTO, where China and India last week tabled a joint proposal calling for developed countries such as the US to cut support that exceeds a minimal share of the value of farm output. This percentage, known as “de minimis” in trade jargon, is set at ten percent of the value of production for most developing countries’ product-specific and non-product-specific support, and half that amount for developed countries. Beijing agreed to a lower level of 8.5 percent during negotiations to join the global trade body. 

US and Indian officials also recently disagreed over data submitted by New Delhi on its support for wheat and rice, while Canada questioned separate figures provided by Washington on US domestic support. (See Bridges Weekly, 21 June 2018

In addition to the proposed new Farm Bill, US budget legislation passed in February this year expands support under cotton and dairy programmes. Following an earlier trade dispute with the US on cotton at the WTO, which saw the global trade arbiter rule largely in favour of Brazil, the country’s agriculture minister Blairo Maggi said last month that the country would initiate another legal challenge. Whether this dispute would come before national elections in Brazil in October was not clear. (See Bridges Weekly, 26 April 2018

ICTSD reporting; “Farm Bill Passes House as Critics Slam Food-Stamp Work Rules,” BLOOMBERG, 21 June 2018; “Brazil ag minister vows new challenge to US cotton subsidies,” AGRIPULSE, 2 May 2018.

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