House Agriculture Committee Seeks Budget Leeway for Farm Bill

By Casey Wooten

House Agriculture Committee lawmakers have one thing to say to their Budget Committee colleagues: We delivered big cost cuts in the last farm bill, so give us the space to help farmers this go-round.

The Agriculture Committee approved in a March 1 business meeting its annual budget views and estimates letter to the House Budget Committee, outlining agriculture priorities and recommendations for the panel to consider as it crafts spending plans.

Members noted in the letter the downturn in the agriculture economy. With crop supplies high and prices low, farmers’ incomes are sagging, something that will need to be addressed as the Agriculture Committee begins to draft the next farm bill, due in 2018.

Lawmakers pointed to the larger-than-expected savings in the 2014 farm bill, saying the committee did its part to help cut the broader federal deficit.

“The bottom line is this: We do not yet know the resources we will need to write an effective new farm bill,” Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said at the meeting. “But what we do know is that our committee has more than demonstrated our fiscal bona fides and we’ve earned the budget flexibility that may be necessary to craft and enact into law the 2018 farm bill.”

Money Saver

When Congress enacted the farm bill in 2014, the Congressional Budget Office projected costs over five years to be $489 billion. But that estimate has fallen as recent cost projections for nutrition aid programs and crop insurance programs have declined compared to previous years, according to the CBO.

“I would argue that Agriculture has gone above and beyond when it comes to deficit reduction,” committee ranking member Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said at the meeting. “We have a new farm bill to write this year and I’ll oppose any attempt to further reduce farm bill spending.”

Peterson restated his opposition to splitting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and farm aid provisions in the next farm bill. SNAP, also known as the food stamps program, makes up about three-fourths of the total farm bill cost. In past farm bills, farm aid and SNAP passed as one measure, aided by a coalition of urban and rural lawmakers whose diverse interests were served in the legislation.

As Congress worked on the 2014 farm bill, House Republicans split the two, passing separate measures with cuts to SNAP. The resulting political division delayed progress on the farm bill. The idea fell flat in the Senate, and the farm bill that cleared Congress reunited farm aid and SNAP.

“Attempting to separate the farm and nutrition pieces would blow the whole thing up, and hopefully those that were pushing this idea last time when they killed the bill for the first time in history on the floor of the House learned their lesson,” Peterson said.

This time around, few members have suggested splitting the farm bill in two, though Conaway has pledged to include an overhaul to SNAP.

Specific Financial Need Unclear

Conaway pointed to “holes in the safety net” for farmers that need mending in the next farm bill. In committee hearings, members have called for the bill to include cotton among the crops covered by the Title I aid provisions of the farm bill. They’ve also called for changes to the Dairy Margin Protection Program and other price and margin aid programs created as part of the 2014 farm bill.

“However, exactly what financial resources we need to accomplish this goal is not clear at this time,” Conaway said.

He also said the committee has yet to arrive at a dollar amount to accomplish his promised SNAP revamp.

In the letter, the committee tied the slump in the farm economy to the overall federal deficit. But as the panel gets ready to craft another five-year farm bill, it said sustained funding will be critical to deliver help to the agriculture sector.

“To be sure, rural America and farm and ranch country are in a severe economic slump right now, with no end in sight, and that is motivation enough for passage of a new farm bill,” the letter said. “But, a new farm bill also has important implications for national economic growth and, therefore, the federal budget as well.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Casey Wooten in Washington at cwooten@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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