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The farm bill is on the verge of expiring. Congress is months away from a new version.

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The farm bill is on the verge of expiring. Congress is months away from a new version.

Sep 26, 2023 | 5:16 pm ET
By Allison Winter
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The farm bill is on the verge of expiring. Congress is months away from a new version.
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Mike Scully harvests soybeans at Scully Family Farms in Spencer, Indiana, on Sept. 29, 2022. (USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service photo by Brandon O’Connor)

WASHINGTON — As the deadline for Congress to pass a new farm bill looms this weekend, staff members of the House and Senate Agriculture committees say it will be months – if not longer – until they reach agreement on a new bill.

Lawmakers must rewrite the sweeping farm bill every five years to set both policy and funding levels for farm, food and conservation programs. The current farm bill expires at midnight Saturday, but Congress is nowhere near ready to consider a new farm bill.

“At this point, it will not be possible to pass a farm bill by Saturday,” Emily Pilscott, an economist for the Democratic staff of the House Agriculture Committee, said at a forum Tuesday with the Farm Foundation, a nonpartisan farm policy group.

The House and Senate Agriculture committees have been working over the past year to get input on the new farm bill, with dozens of hearings, field hearings, listening sessions and staff meetings in each chamber. But with a few days left before the current bill expires, lawmakers have not yet put forward legislation at the committee level and staff say they are still divided on some of the big-ticket items on the bill.

Republican and Democratic staff from both the House and Senate say both sides want to find a bill that will support farms and farmers, but there is still significant disagreement about major programs, including the “safety net” of payments to farmers, crop insurance and conservation programs.

They do not even have enough consensus on potential changes to ask for a “score” from the Congressional Budget Office – the process of seeing how much different proposals would cost over the course of the farm bill.

“We are all on the same page about wanting to help farmers, but there are definitely some disagreements about the best way to do that,” Pilscott said of House Agriculture Committee members.

Another key area of disagreement in the House is  the SNAP program, a huge spending portion of the farm bill that helps low-income families buy food.

Republicans want to place more limits on the funds – a move that Democrats have warned would doom the farm bill. Congress put some restrictions on SNAP as part of the debt limit legislation.

But House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other Republicans said afterward they want more work requirements for SNAP funds. Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee sent a letter to McCarthy in August that said further limits to SNAP could jeopardize the farm bill.

SNAP is considered a mandatory appropriation and would continue at current levels as long as there is an appropriations bill or a continuing resolution to keep the Agriculture Department running — another problem right now in Congress.

‘A terrible time to do a farm bill’

The massive five-year farm bill is usually one of the more bipartisan efforts of Congress, at least on the committee level. But farm policy experts say this year’s farm bill has particular challenges — both because of the partisan divide in Congress and because of the current state of the farm economy.

Jonathan Coppess, a professor of agriculture law and policy at  University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the prospects for the farm bill are in “serious doubt,” given the far-right faction that is holding up legislation in the House.

“We have an incredibly difficult political hurdle in the House and on the House floor,” Coppess said.

“This is a terrible time to do a farm bill,” said Joe Outlaw, an agricultural economist and professor at Texas A&M University.

Outlaw’s concern is not only the political strife in the Capitol but the current farm economy. Relatively high crop prices have masked a tenuous economy for farmers.

“The farm safety net is all about the bad times, and frankly the bad times are coming, they just aren’t here right now,” Outlaw said.

On the Senate side, Democratic and Republican staff are meeting regularly, but there is still a divide on major issues like how to address the farm safety net.

Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, the top ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has said his chief concern is to help farmers face rising input costs for things like fertilizer and fuel, along with the possibility of lower crop prices.

“Title One support does not reflect the reality on the ground today,” said John Newton, chief economist for the Republicans on the Senate Agriculture Committee, in remarks at the Farm Foundation Forum.

Title One is the section of the farm bill that provides crop subsidies. Newton said Republicans would like to see a “meaningful increase in reference prices,” the amount at which the government will step in and help farmers.

Meanwhile, the economist for the Democratic majority on the Senate Agriculture Committee said he is looking at how the Title One commodity programs and crop insurance work together.

“We are looking closely at program interactions, how programs work together or overlap. The farm safety net — that is where there are some really challenging interactions,” said Steven Wallander, senior economist for the Democratic staff of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

A lengthening deadline

Like many bills on Capitol Hill, the farm bill has some “discretionary” programs, which are set up in the bill but have to be funded through the annual appropriations process.

But the farm bill is unique in that most of its programs have “mandatory” spending. That funding is set in the farm bill itself and is paid out over the next five years, regardless of congressional appropriations. Those mandatory programs include crop subsidies, conservation programs, some forms of crop insurance and SNAP, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Most of the mandatory programs will continue without any action through the end of the calendar year — delaying some of the urgency for Congress. In recent history, lawmakers have not passed any farm bills before the Sept. 30 deadline.

The 2018 farm bill passed in December, three months after the prior bill expired. And the three farm bills before that each passed in the year following their original deadline.

But Outlaw predicts that if lawmakers do not finish the new farm bill by February, the election cycle will take over and it could be years before they return to the farm bill.

Wallander said he hopes the Senate committee is on a timeline similar to the 2018 farm bill, when lawmakers rolled out legislation in the fall and passed a bill by the end of the year.

Senate Democratic and Republican staff are meeting together regularly. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, and Boozman meet together weekly.

“There is strong bipartisan support for getting this done, we’ve seen that with the chairwoman and ranking member and their experiences working together. We think that strength is something we can leverage towards a finished product,” Wallander told the Farm Foundation Forum.

On the House side, Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, a Republican from Pennsylvania, has said he will not bring a farm bill to the committee until there is scheduled time for debate on the House floor.

That could be a stretch this year, with the House placing a priority on spending bills to fund the government. There are only 28 voting days on the House calendar between now and the end of the calendar year.

Without a new farm bill or an extension of the current bill, crop support programs will continue through the end of the calendar year. The conservation programs are extended through 2031 as part of the Inflation Reduction Act.

Government shutdown another complication

Another challenge for the farm bill is the debate over spending bills and the possibility of a government shutdown next week.

The conflict over spending has already slowed the farm bill process. If the government shuts down, committee staff will not be able to get technical assistance or new reports from the Agriculture Department.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a Monday White House briefing that it would be nearly impossible to enact a new farm bill if there are disruptions from a federal shutdown.

“It is pretty tough to do if there is a shutdown, you can’t do it,” Vilsack, former Iowa governor, said.

The White House released a state-by-state breakdown, estimating that nearly 7 million people who rely on a nutrition program for women, infants and children could be at risk of losing funds to purchase select food and receive vouchers for vegetables and fruit.

The House has passed only one of its 12 appropriations bills, which need to be in place by the end of the fiscal year on Saturday. A group of far-right Republicans are pushing for steeper cuts to nondefense federal spending, even if it means a partial government shutdown.

Lawmakers usually turn to a continuing resolution, or CR, to keep the government afloat for the weeks or months it takes to finish the annual spending bills. But lawmakers have not yet agreed to a CR this year, and some House Republicans have said they will block it.