A Tale of Two Farm Bills - Will We Get One?

What shape is the five-year farm and food bill in now? It looks pretty rough, but is still alive. There are now basically two versions, one passed by the Senate and one passed by the House. In the House of Representatives the bill was divided into two separate bills, one “farm only” and the other “nutrition title only”. None of the pieces, the Senate bill, the House “farm” bill, or the House “nutrition” bill, is pretty. There is some good, some bad, and some really ugly.

For these pieces of work to be turned into anything resembling a farm and food bill, the two parts from the House – “farm only” and “nutrition only” – would first have to be rejoined by the House. That would allow the House version and the Senate version to be handed to a Conference Committee. That may happen quickly, but then again it may not.

A Conference Committee, with members from both Senate and House Agriculture Committees (and maybe some others not from Ag Committee) would be tasked with working out compromises around the differences between the versions from the two chambers. If a farm bill does emerge, this committee would determine how much good, how much bad, and how much ugly will be included. The ingredients are there to develop a decent bill, but a terrible bill could emerge, as well. And there is no guarantee that a compromise bill can be developed at all. The House and Senate versions are very similar around some issues, and very different around others. And compromise seems to come hard in this Congress.

At issue are a whole range of programs and issues, including soil and water conservation programs, beginning farmer programs, farm commodity program reform, regional and local food system support, organic agriculture programs, agriculture research, and rural economic development support.

If they do arrive at a bill supported by the Conference Committee, then both the House and the Senate would have to approve it, as well. There is a long road still to be traveled, and a farm bill may not be possible at all. We may end up with another temporary extension, a situation that has its own pitfalls and quicksand.

More detail on farm bill progress or regress is available from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC).

In the meantime, the current temporary extension under which programs are now operating (Congress was unable to pass a farm bill last year) expires at the end of September. Even if there weren’t big policy differences that need to be worked through, a new farm couldn’t be completed before the temporary authorization runs out. A blog posting from NSAC highlights programs that will be halted in a few days.

What will happen next on the farm bill is not clear. If there are strategic opportunities for citizen action, they may come soon or late. And they will likely be brief. “Stay tuned,” seems to be the watchword.

bills of paper.jpg
Pam Kingfisher