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Could Congress pass a new farm bill in 2017?

Need to accomplish something could help fuel drive to complete new law before end of year.

Farmers may be seeing a “first draft” of a 2018 – or could it be 2017 – farm bill sooner rather than later, according to, Mary Kay Thatcher,  the American Farm Bureau Federation’s chief congressional lobbyist.

Speaking on the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture webinar on the new farm bill Thursday (Sept. 7), Ms. Thatcher said both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees may be close to bringing a farm bill to the floor of their respective chambers.

“For several months now, the House Ag Committee has been talking to us about the fact that they intended to finish drafting their farm bill in August,” she said. “I don't know if they're completely finished yet, but I suspect they're pretty far down the road. 

“Then just a few weeks ago, (Senate Agriculture, Forestry and Nutrition Committee Chair) Pat Roberts indicated maybe we would have a mark‑up in October and have colloquy with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Last time we had such a hard time (passing the 2014 farm bill), and this time absolutely everyone is trying to get it done as soon as possible.” 

She said both Sen. Roberts and Rep. Mike Conaway, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, have indicated that whenever they can get floor time for consideration of their versions of the farm bill, they will introduce their measures.

Limit opportunities to change

The committees will try to move through the floor debate quickly, she said, “because we don’t want the bills to sit out there forever because we know our opponents will jump all over that. One of the reasons, too, that there is a real chance, I think, for doing this in 2017 is you're all aware that Congress has not been able to accomplish much.”

Ms. Thatcher, senior director of governmental affairs for the American Farm Bureau and a fifth-generation Iowa farmer, said this Congress has a lot on its plate as members try to finish out the year.

One issue – funding the government – was “kicked down the road” when the Senate and House passed compromise legislation that would keep the government open into December, raise the debt ceiling and provide $15 billion for hurricane relief. President Trump is expected to sign it soon.

“We tried to do some work on immigration reform,” she said. “That is still coming. Tax reform, we hope, is still coming. We have been talking about an infrastructure bill.  Certainly we got tied up in the health care debate. There has been some feeling that members of congress would like to go home and tell folks that something has been accomplished. 

“Since the Senate and House agriculture committees are far more bipartisan than other committees, this is one chance that we might, indeed start early. I give it a 50-50 chance that we start the farm bill in either the house or Senate side sometime this fall.”

Budget issues complicating task

The federal budget has made and will continue to make writing this farm bill more difficult, according to Thatcher. The Agricultural Act of 2014 or 2014 farm bill was projected to cost $956 billion over 10 years or nearly a trillion dollars.

More than $750 billion of that is from the nutritional title with most of the money going for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps. The second biggest category is crop insurance subsidies at $89 billion. then conservation programs at $57.6 billion and commodity programs at $44.4 billion.

“So one of the biggest hurdles that we're going to face in this farm bill is something that we faced in the last farm bill, and that is what are we going to do about some of the nutrition programs?” she said.

“Most of the Ag community is not focused on those, but certainly having nutrition in there is one way, probably the best way that we're able to continue to move the farm bill along.”

Chairman Conaway, she noted, has had numerous hearings looking at ways to reduce the spending on nutrition programs, including such things as transitioning able-bodied recipients with no dependents out of the program and increasing work requirements.

Seeking an answer

The last time the House voted on a proposal to reduce spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP by $20 billion – in 2013 – the measure was defeated by Democrats who said $20 billion was too much and Republicans who said it was not enough.

“It’s a very difficult issue to balance, and one that will likely come up again this year,” she said, adding the problem is exacerbated by the requirement to have 60 votes to pass almost any legislation in the Senate. .

“This spring you had Pat Roberts say about one of the items that has been discussed, ‘I don't have 60 votes,’ which is what's needed to pass virtually everything in the Senate. ‘On the other hand, if I don't do reforms, I don't have 60 votes, either.’ It's difficult on both the House and Senate side and probably more difficult for Chairman Conaway.”

Some say just split the farm bill and have a nutrition bill and farm‑only bill, she noted. “What you find is we have only 35 out of 435 congressional districts that have more than 50 percent of their constituents that live in the rural areas. This is not 50 percent farmers; this is 50 percent rural communities, communities of 2500 and less.

“I would characterize these as people who, indeed, really have to care about agriculture.  If I do the flip side, there are 55 of those 435 districts that have 100 percent of their constituents in urban areas. If I split nutrition off and have farm‑only bills, how would somebody like me convince those 55 members of congress to vote for a farm‑only farm bill? Very, very unlikely to happen.”

To watch the webinar, click on http://bit.ly/2wOxg56.

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