Farm Bill Conference: Priority Issues At-A-Glance
On October 30, the 41 House and Senate farm bill conferees convened at a public meeting to formally kick-off negotiations, although informal talks began a few months ago between agriculture leadership’s staff. Despite many conferees cautioning against pre-maturely drawing lines on issues, it was clear what issues will be on the negotiating table in addition to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), including:
- Permanent Law and Splitting of Farm Bill. A day before the public meeting, over 250 agriculture groups, conservation organizations, and other stakeholders sent a letter to conferees opposing the House farm bill’s adoption of permanent law. The letter also called for conferees to authorize all programs – commodities and nutrition programs – in a five-year bill. The bill would repeal the 1938 and 1949 price-support laws and make commodity programs permanent under title I. For programs not under title I, such as horticulture programs (i.e., organics, specialty crops), the bill would leave them without authorization once the legislation expires. Groups representing southern crops (i.e., peanuts, rice, and cotton) did not sign onto the letter. Meanwhile, 27 Republicans led by Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN) sent a letter to farm bill conferees urging them to keep agriculture programs separate from nutrition programs. As discussed in last week’s Capital Thinking blog post, the House bill also sets a different authorization timetable for the SNAP.
- Dairy Stabilization Program. In particular, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) will look to defeat efforts to include the House farm bill’s dairy provision (would decouple the Dairy Stabilization Program’s proposed supply management and margin insurance program). Consumer and manufacturer groups warn that Rep. Peterson’s efforts and the Senate bill, which adopts the Dairy Stabilization Program, would raise retail milk prices and increase costs of federal nutritional assistance. Critics argue that the Senate program affords protections to milk producers, including reducing costs associated with the insurance program.
- Commerce. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) made clear that he will defend his provision in the House farm bill that would prevent states from denying the sale of products produced in another state. The provision is a direct attack on California’s animal welfare, egg producing law. Critics, including California’s Rep. Jim Costa (D), argue that the provision is “vague and overly broad” and could have larger implications for interstate commerce.
- Country-of-Origin-Labeling (COOL). Conferees Mike Conaway (R-TX), Randy Neugebauer (R-TX), Austin Scott (R-GA), and Pat Roberts (R-KS) made clear that a priority is to maintain a House provision that would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to conduct an economic analysis of the department’s stricter COOL regulations it issued earlier this year in response to a World Trade Organization ruling. The meat industry opposes the stricter regulations, while groups like the Consumer Federation of America and the National Farmers Union support them.
- Food for Peace. Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Ed Royce (R-CA) continue to make clear that they are looking to reform Food for Peace program. Both members favor the Senate’s version on food aid, which includes built-in flexibility for the government to allocate 20 percent of food aid funding to purchase food outside of the United States. The bill also would limit the practice of monetization.
- Food Safety Modernization Act. The House farm bill includes a provision that would further delay the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) by requiring the agency to conduct “a scientific and economic analysis” of FSMA regulations before being issued. The Senate farm bill does not include similar language. We expect there to be opposition to delaying FSMA implementation through the farm bill, especially with FDA under a court order to finalize FSMA regulations by June 30, 2015.
Farm Bill in the Budget Deal
With more of House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas’ (R-OK) concerns about including farm bill cost savings in a budget deal being allayed, he has remarked publicly that he could possibly put such an option on the table. Rep. Lucas was initially concerned with having a budget deal that would adopt the farm bill’s cost-savings but not its associated policies.
In response, Ranking Member Collin Peterson has picked up the torch in criticizing this idea publicly. Last week, Rep. Peterson was quite frank in saying that farm bill savings should not be included in a larger budget deal. At a media conference, he asked reporters to consider how budget conferees would treat the farm bill to achieve a certain level of cost savings, “what do you think Paul Ryan would end up doing if he was writing the farm bill?”
Pressure continues to mount on the agriculture leadership in both chambers to reach a deal on the farm bill, as the December 31 deadline looms and with less than 15 legislative days remaining. To make matters worse, the House will be out of session this week. Therefore, we expect to see conversations on including the farm bill in a larger congressional budget deal to pick up as December 13 gets closer. This is the deadline for the Congressional Budget Conference Committee to reconcile the FY 2014 budget resolution enacted by both chambers.
Administration on the Farm Bill
As negotiations continue, we are beginning to get clearer signs of what will and will not trigger a White House veto on a final farm bill. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack remained critical of the House’s proposal to cut SNAP funding by $39 billion over ten years, but did indicate where the administration would possibly be receptive to changes in SNAP. In discussing work requirements, the secretary shared that states “are not penalized and there is no significant accountability (for meeting requirements) in my view on that area. That’s one place where you could get the policy right. You could utilize resources more effectively and in doing so would have fewer people in need of the SNAP program.” Secretary Vilsack also indicated that the White House would accept changes to how heating assistance is used to calculate monthly SNAP benefits. Currently, both versions of the farm bill would raise the current threshold amount of $1 for a Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program payment to trigger SNAP eligibility for benefits. The Senate bill would set the threshold amount at $10, while the House bill would set it at $20. The administration has not budged on adopting the House’s provision that would eliminate categorical eligibility for SNAP participants who qualify because they receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families assistance.
In response to the expiration of stimulus funding boost to SNAP this past Friday, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) introduced legislation that would retroactively maintain the $5 billion funding gap for an additional year.
SNAP Retailer Eligibility. Stakeholders now have until Wednesday, November 6 to submit comments to USDA about information that would “enhance retailer definitions and requirements in a manner that improves access to healthy food choices for SNAP participants as well as program integrity, and ensures that only retailers that effectuate the purpose of SNAP are authorized to accept benefits.” Comments were originally due on October 21.
Affordable Care Act. According to paperwork filed with the Office of Management and Budget last week, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) plans to study the effects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on SNAP operations and participation. In particular, FNS will research: coordination of SNAP and Medicaid enrollment and renewal processes; the process of directing Medicaid applicants to SNAP; and the impact of ACA on the number of SNAP applications. FNS will focus on nondisabled adults who are 19 to 64 of age.