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USDA chief voices ‘deep concerns’ over U.S. House GOP farm bill’s nutrition cuts

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USDA chief voices ‘deep concerns’ over U.S. House GOP farm bill’s nutrition cuts

May 22, 2024 | 3:00 pm ET
By Jane Norman
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USDA chief voices ‘deep concerns’ over U.S. House GOP farm bill’s nutrition cuts
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U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, pictured in Omaha on March 28, 2024, raised concerns Wednesday with U.S. House Republicans’ farm bill proposal. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on a call with reporters Wednesday strongly criticized a farm bill draft written by U.S. House Republicans, saying it would damage the coalition that traditionally has united behind farm bills and “raises the real possibility of being unable to get a farm bill through the process.”

The massive five-year legislation governing farm, nutrition, commodity and conservation programs is scheduled for a markup beginning Thursday morning in the House Agriculture Committee, headed up by Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, a Pennsylvania Republican.

It already has appeared headed for a clash with a proposal in the Democratic-controlled Senate amid disagreements over anti-hunger and conservation programs. In addition, the must-pass bill faces a House with a slim 217-213 GOP majority.

Vilsack expressed frustration that work on the $1.5 trillion measure has been delayed by eight months and said he has “deep concerns” about the proposed package released by Thompson last week. Lawmakers fighting over spending and the speaker post in the House last year passed an extension of the 2018 farm bill that expires Sept. 30.

“I appreciate the fact that folks are working hard. I appreciate the fact that they’ve listened to people out there in the countryside,” said Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa.

“But I’m afraid that what we have is a circumstance where the proposal being advanced by the House of Representatives, the Republican members of the Ag Committee, it really is designed not to create a route to passage … I think it’s designed, unfortunately, for a route to impasse, which will cause a further delay.”

Cuts to nutrition, disaster programs

Vilsack said he objects to provisions that would reduce spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, that delivers food assistance to more than 40 million low-income families.

By limiting future updates to the Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for benefit levels, the bill’s reductions would amount to $30 billion over 10 years, the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has estimated. Vilsack put the number at $27 billion.

“It’s been clear that there has been a coalition historically that is central to the passage of the farm bill, which understands the importance of addressing the nutrition programs and the farm programs,” Vilsack said. “It is essentially a crack in the coalition that is absolutely necessary to the passage of the farm bill … The fact that we’re crossing that red line raises the real possibility of being unable to get a farm bill through the process.”

He said he also has a problem with a section of the House bill dealing with the Commodity Credit Corporation, which carries out various farm programs.

The legislation would restrict the USDA’s authority to use the CCC’s Section 5, which Vilsack said would tie the agency’s hands in responding to natural disasters affecting farmers and force USDA to rely on Congress to enact disaster assistance.

“There’s no assurance that such bills get passed,” Vilsack said. “And secondly, oftentimes Congress underfunds those bills, as was the case so recently with the 2023 situation disasters.”

He said Thompson is proposing “essentially to eliminate the capacity of the secretary of Agriculture to utilize the CCC in the face of a natural disaster, for example, that distorts markets.” He also said he believes the bill overestimates the savings that would be obtained.

Vilsack said he prefers a farm bill proposal offered by Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, describing it as “more practical” and “doable.” Stabenow, who has released a summary of her bill but not the text, would boost eligibility for nutrition programs such as SNAP, among other provisions.

Chair defends proposal

Thompson, in a statement after the call, pushed back on Vilsack’s comments and said his bill makes “historic investments” in agriculture.

“It’s clear from this eleventh hour push that the Secretary is determined to use every penny of the borrowing authority made available to him to circumvent Congress if left unchecked,” he said. “The Committee is reasserting Congress’ authority over the Commodity Credit Corporation, which will bring reckless administrative spending under control and provides funding for key bipartisan priorities in the farm bill.

“The sudden rancor on using the CCC as a pay-for is nothing more than the latest partisan attempt to divide our committee and slow down progress on passing a farm bill.”

The committee in a press release Wednesday also listed multiple statements of praise for the Thompson proposal, including the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the CEO of the National Conference of State Legislatures, the CEO of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and leaders of various commodity and trade groups.