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House Ag Chair Readies Farm Bill Ag Will Like, but Force Democrats to Choose

By Chris Clayton

The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee expects to mark-up a farm bill in committee before the end of May and use a Biden administration move to boost SNAP spending to increase spending in other areas of the farm bill.

Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson, R-Pa., spoke Tuesday to members of North American Agricultural Journalists (NAAJ) about his farm bill plans, while Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee also talked about their efforts to reach a framework on a farm bill.

Multiple Democratic leaders on the House Agriculture Committee declined an invitation to speak to reporters about the farm bill.

Thompson said his goal is to create a "robust farm safety net" that fully funds other areas of the farm bill. Thompson said there would be no cuts from current Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) beneficiaries. Also, no funding from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) or SNAP dollars will go to boost the farm safety net, Thompson said.

"A lot of this bill, quite frankly, has been written. We've found some pretty creative ways to be able to fund what I think would be a transformational and highly effective farm bill," Thompson said.

He added, "Anyone who criticizes our funding framework is either being ignorant of the details or being disingenuous."

Thompson plans to make moves with both IRA conservation dollars and long-term projections in the growth of SNAP spending that likely will be opposed by Democrats. Thompson said his bill will be popular with people in agriculture and "constituents," so House Democrats, including Agriculture Committee Ranking Member David Scott, D-Ga., "have some choices to make."

A draft of the farm bill will likely be released shortly before the House Agriculture Committee holds a markup meeting on the legislation "I haven't finalized the day for the markup yet, but sometime before Memorial Day," Thompson said. "I don't anticipate waiting until the end of May."

GOP members of the House Agriculture Committee on Monday night took turns speaking on the House floor calling on Congress to pass a farm bill. Thompson called it "the official kickoff to the home stretch" in getting a bill passed.

SENATE WILL HOLD

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said the Senate hasn't set an exact timeline, but the leaders do have "substantial bipartisan agreement" on more than half of the provisions of a farm bill. "We're still working on the rest of them," she said.

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he hopes to release a "framework" for a farm bill proposal soon, but the Senate Agriculture Committee would continue to hold for the House to pass a bill before moving ahead on its own bill.

Boozman rejected the idea that Republicans would rather delay a bill for a potential Trump presidency to write a bill next year. He said a new administration would further delay a bill because of turnover in staff.

"I would argue for farmers that we have as great a chance, an easier chance of getting a farm bill done this year rather than next year," Boozman said.

Stabenow also reiterated she was pleased to see Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., put forward his bill last week with other GOP senators that would increase premium subsidies for higher crop insurance coverage levels and make other changes to improve crop insurance for farmers. "I was encouraging him to put in his proposal."

Stabenow has argued it is too costly to raise reference prices that just go to farmers with certain crops that have base acres. She said she wants to see more effort invested in improving crop insurance options because a large share of farmers do not have base acres, so they don't qualify for the commodity programs.

"I'm also glad we are focusing on crop insurance, which includes every single crop, and not just the commodity crop," Stabenow said. She added, "When you ask farmers the most important part of risk management for them, it's crop insurance."

SHIFTING FUTURE SPENDING PROJECTIONS

A key budget move for Thompson's farm bill will be to adjust or reverse engineer changes USDA made to the Thrifty Food Plan. USDA, early in the Biden administration, updated the cost estimate for determining a healthy diet for SNAP recipients. In the past, those USDA updates were always "budget neutral," but the Biden administration updates increased the future projected costs of SNAP by nearly $30 billion a year.

By forcing USDA to go back to a budget-neutral calculation, Thompson's farm bill plan suddenly has a lot of money to move around. "It gives us a significant pay for," Thompson said.

Some of those funds from recalibrating the Thrifty Food Plan would go back into nutrition programs and expand access to food programs for some people, Thompson said. But it also opens the potential to beef up other areas -- if Democrats will go along.

"It does no harm. It doesn't cut anybody's benefits to do that," Thompson said.

The change also would restrict how future administrations make changes to SNAP. That includes potentially restricting a "hard-right future administration" from "arbitrarily coming in and cutting benefits."

Thompson added, "It really is a win-win."

IRA DOLLARS

Thompson also plans to bring the leftover funds from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) into the farm bill -- roughly $14 billion out of an initial pot of $19 billion. Thompson plans to roll that money into the current USDA conservation programs but keep those funds for conservation. Still, unlike Stabenow's view, Thompson wants to remove the climate-specific focus on those funds but keep conservation "locally led and voluntary."

Stabenow, who won the battle to get the conservation funds in the IRA, said she is unwilling to remove a provision that requires the IRA dollars go toward practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions or sequester carbon.

"The vast majority of conservation practices that farmers want and use right now are covered now under the money we are using," Stabenow said. "Keeping the climate language doesn't affect the money going out because it's something farmers want to do anyway."

Boozman said he wants to see the IRA dollars added to the farm bill but keep them in conservation. Still, he also questions tying those dollars to practices considered "climate smart." There have been "further left groups" that have attacked IRA dollars going to pay for methane digesters because they do not like confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to argue environmental groups want more restrictions on how farmers use the IRA dollars.

Boozman said providing IRA dollars to help with water retention or irrigation efforts are also climate-related practices. What are farmers focused on? "It's water, water, water. They want to preserve water, they want to use it as best that they can," Boozman said. "And I would argue that providing conservation practices that help with water -- that help protect that tremendous resource ... it's just how you say these things. What's your idea of a climate activity compared to somebody else?"

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