Last week (June 14), the Senate Agriculture Committee voted 20–1 to pass its version of the next farm bill – the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (S. 3042).
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has stated that he hopes to bring the bill before the full Senate by June 29, which is the last day that Congress is in session before the July 4 recess. At this time, it is not yet clear how many amendments will be allowed if and when the bill goes to the floor. CRL is working with the USCCB, Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services and others to advocate on behalf of low-income families and hard-pressed family farmers.
As the Senate prepares to take their bill to the floor, the House has not chosen a date for revisiting its version of the farm bill, which failed on the House floor last month. The House could look to again try and pass its bill, but it remains to be seen if leadership will have the votes necessary to pass the bill on their second attempt.
Whatever happens in the House, the Senate bill will hopefully serve as the standard-bearer for crafting the final 2018 Farm Bill. But, as the process continues, the following changes are needed for the current Senate bill.
A top priority for family farm advocates is to limit the size of commodity subsidy payments and reform the eligibility rules for such payments. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) had been championing this effort and working with Ag Committee leaders to negotiate language that would restore accountability and fairness to Title I (Commodities). However, the reform amendment was not allowed due to a legislative drafting technicality.
The amendment will have a second chance when the full Senate considers the bill. The intent is to place a hard cap on the total amount of commodity program payments and benefits any one farm can receive annually. The amendment would also strengthen “actively engaged” rules to ensure that large operations cannot continually multiply payments by adding non-farm investors and absentee “managers” to their farming business.
The good news is the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) are retained in the Senate bill, but the popularity of these conservation programs requires more funds to meet the widespread demand of farmers. The bad news is the Senate bill cuts funding for working lands conservation programs.
Additional amendments to the Senate bill should include strengthening enforcements of soil and wetland conservation compliance. Conservation compliance requirements tie commodity and crop insurance subsidies to reductions in soil erosion and protection of wetlands. Without these requirements, there could be dramatic increases in soil erosion and wetland and grassland conversions.
—Robert Gronski is a Consultant for Catholic Rural Life. He tracks policy perspectives on food, farm, environmental, and rural community issues and helps frame these within the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching.