WASHINGTON — Having been passed by overwhelming majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives, the $87 billion Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, the farm bill, was sent to President Donald Trump to be signed into law. The Senate passed the legislation on Dec. 11 by a lopsided vote of 87-13, and the House followed suit on Dec. 13 passing the five-year farm bill by a vote of 369-47. The former farm bill expired on Sept. 30.
The votes to approve in Congress could not fail but impress, especially in view of the sharp differences between House and Senate farm bills, particularly related to the nutrition title, that were brought into conference. The compromise legislation drew elements from both the Senate and House farm bills. But on the key issue in the nutrition title, the conference report rejected the House farm bill’s more expansive work requirements for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Among other things, the House bill would have extended the requirement for SNAP benefit recipients to work or participate in work training programs at least 20 hours a week to individuals between 50 and 59 years of age (under the recently expired farm bill, individuals between the ages of 18 and 49 years were subject to such requirements) and to individuals with dependent children above six years of age.
The more expansive work requirements were favored by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and the Trump administration, but insistence on the more stringent work rules resulted in a House farm bill that failed to win even one Democratic vote. The Congressional Budget Office estimated 1.5 million individuals would have lost their eligibility for SNAP benefits under the House work provisions, and expenditures on SNAP would have been reduced by about $9 billion over 10 years.
The farm bill does include language aimed at reducing/eliminating improper or double payments of SNAP benefits and requires governors to sign off on state requests for waivers from work requirements that several states currently invoke particularly in areas of high unemployment or poverty.
Nevertheless, food assistance advocates could point to a victory over attempts to limit SNAP’s reach and services.
“Informed by the values and expertise of our conferees, this bill upholds our obligations to the nearly 39 million Americans who are food-insecure,” said House Speaker-Designate Nancy Pelosi of California. “It preserves current benefits for millions of children, seniors and students, 1.5 million veterans, 23,000 service members, individuals with disabilities and hard-working families who rely on this transformative lifeline. It makes smart improvements to food stamps that strengthen the safety net for families.”
James D. Weill, president, Food Research & Action Center, commended key members of Congress on both sides of the aisle “who prioritized the needs of those at risk of hunger.” Mr. Weill reserved special thanks for Senate agriculture committee chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas, Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, ranking member on the committee, and Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota, ranking member on the House Committee on Agriculture, “for pushing back against the House bill’s proposed SNAP cuts, which have punished and stigmatized low-income Americans and made hunger and poverty in this country, far, far worse.”
While key food industry associations voiced regret that the farm bill failed to reform the highly protective sugar program, virtually all farm organizations voiced their support for the farm bill. The American Bakers Association did not.
“Members of Congress missed a great opportunity to make reasonable reforms to outdated commodity programs in the 2018 farm bill,” said Robb MacKie, president and chief executive officer of the A.B.A. “Unfortunately, the legislation prolongs protections for big sugar’s special interest that continue to force bakers and consumers to pay inflated prices for one of foods’ most pervasive ingredients. What is more disappointing is that the conference report raised the loan rate for all commodities, including sugar. While it is necessary for our nation’s farmers to have a safety net to rely on during turbulent times, big sugar has continued to gain off artificially high prices and was yet again given a Christmas present.”
Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said, “Today’s passage of the 2018 farm bill by the House of Representatives, and the Senate’s approval yesterday, is welcome news to America’s farmers and ranchers and the consumers who depend on them for our food, fiber and energy crops. Passage means we are one signature away from renewal of risk management tools, foreign market development and environmental stewardship programs that farmers and ranchers need to survive a prolonged and painful downturn in farm income and be sustainable.”
Randy Gordon, president, National Feed Grain Association, also urged approval of the farm bill.
“The 2018 farm bill language unveiled by congressional negotiators this week includes several Conservation Reserve Program (C.R.P.) reforms that the N.G.F.A. supported throughout the process, including reducing rental rates to provide a market-based disincentive to enrolling productive cropland,” Mr. Gordon said.
This policy change also “benefits young and beginning farmers and ranchers who for too long have been forced to compete directly against the federal government to access farmland, a troubling policy when the average age of the American farmer is 58,” he said.
Mr. Gordon said while the N.G.F.A. would have preferred that Congress kept the C.R.P. acreage cap at 24 million acres, “the association appreciates the conferees’ adoption of a reasonable C.R.P. limit of 27 million acres with 2 million acres of those expressly reserved for grasslands, especially in light of pressure early on from some groups to expand the C.R.P. cap by a whopping 66% to 40 million acres. In implementing C.R.P., we also will be encouraging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to view this as a cap, not a minimum requirement for C.R.P. enrollment.”
“This legislation will provide the risk management tools farmers need to navigate difficult economic conditions over the next five years,” said Davie Stephens, a soybean farmer from Clinton, Ky., and president of the American Soybean Association.
“A.S.A. applauds the improvements in Title I support programs, including giving producers the option to choose between the county A.R.C. (Agriculture Risk Coverage) and P.L.C. (Price Loss Coverage) programs in four of the five years of the new bill,” Mr. Stephens said. “This will allow farmers to respond to increased volatility in overseas markets and prices in coming years.”
Noting that the farm bill raised the marketing loan rate for soybeans by 24%, to $6.20 a bu from $5, the A.S.A. president added, “The increase in the soybean loan rate will benefit farmers who need to access low-interest financing for their 2019 and future crops.”