Monday, October 2, 2023

Food Insecurity: U.S. Dragging out the farm bill would sideline several Republican initiatives in rural America but it would also help Speaker Kevin McCarthy avoid another mutiny from his right flank.

Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.).

Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and ranking member John Boozman (R-Ark.) are trying to mesh partisan interests in difficult farm bill negotiations.

 |Francis Chung/POLITICO

By MEREDITH LEE HILL09/29/2023 05:00 AM EDT

The Senate was supposed to bring a grownup attitude to hashing out $1 trillion farm and food legislation while the House swirled in dysfunction.

Instead, the Senate’s negotiations over the bill — which will affect everything from subsidies for inflation-stressed farmers to nutrition programs for low-income families — are unraveling as Republicans and Democrats spar over climate change and other big-ticket items.

Just as the nation braces for a government shutdown this weekend, several programs tied to the once-every-five-years farm bill are also set to lapse. Leaders in both the House and Senate say their new goal is to pass legislation by the end of the year, when the bulk of agriculture programs expire. But the rare public spat over legislation that’s long married the interests of rural Republicans with urban Democrats has many interest groups worried the bill will get sidelined much longer than that.

Behind closed doors, lawmakers are starting to raise whether a one or two-year punt will be necessary, particularly as Republicans demand new increases for key farm programs and a hard-right mutiny paralyzes the House. That kind of delay would put additional strain on a sector already dealing with high inflation, potentially creating an election-year headache for ag-state lawmakers if farmers don’t see relief.

“If we don’t get that beefed up, there’s not going to be a farm bill this year — there’s going to be a one-year extension,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a longtime member of the Agriculture Committee, said of the safety net programs.

In recent weeks, both Democrats and Republicans have privately and publicly threatened to blow up the bipartisan talks being led by Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, the panel’s top Republican. And as Stabenow, who is a member of Democratic leadership, insists there isn’t enough money to significantly boost funding for some of the farm programs Boozman, Grassley and other Republicans want, Democrats are under intense pressure from the left to protect $20 billion in money for climate-centered agriculture projects.

The cash was authorized in Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act last year and Senate Republicans want to remove tight restrictions on how the money can be spent if it’s added to the farm bill.

Defending the programs prompted Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) to take to the Senate floor to accuse Democrats of prioritizing “climate and welfare spending” over America’s farmers — a charge Democrats say ignores how climate change is already affecting food producers.

After leaving a closed-door meeting of Agriculture Committee Democrats in Stabenow’s Senate hideaway last week, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) warned he would not support any effort to “undo” the IRA’s climate-focused agriculture programs. The initiatives, he said, are designed to help farmers improve their yields and fight climate change.

The Senate’s acrimony escalated so quickly that Stabenow and Boozman met late last week in an effort to tamp down tensions, according to three people familiar with the plans.

“Senator Boozman and I have a good working relationship,” Stabenow said when asked about the rising tensions. “Right now, we are both focused on writing a strong, bipartisan 2023 Farm Bill that secures the farm and family safety net and meets the needs of the American people.” Boozman has similarly said the pair maintain a good relationship and they’re trying to work through issues.

The impasse has prompted at least one Agriculture Committee Democrat, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, to suggest her party might need to write its own bill, without input from key Republicans. (Klobuchar privately told other senators the press had taken her comments out of context.) Stabenow has dismissed that possibility — for now.

When asked earlier this month if the farm bill talks might reach a point where Democrats need to push their own bill, the Michigan senator, who is retiring at the end of this Congress, replied: “Not at this point.”

But time is running out. If Congress can’t pass a new farm bill by the end of the year, senators have begun warning that a long extension of the current legislation might be unavoidable. That prospect would force lawmakers to continue negotiating politically sensitive topics through the heat of 2024 presidential and congressional races.

A two-year extension would punt the farm bill clear into the next Congress. It’s a move that would represent a major failure for Republicans in particular, who represent a majority of rural districts, but it would protect the legislation — and Speaker Kevin McCarthy — from yet another hard-right mutiny.
Stabenow’s resistance to the Republican push for significantly boosting agriculture safety net and risk management tools — like crop insurance and support programs for farm commodities — is born out of the reality that the farm bill budget is flat.

But even some red-state Democrats are balking at the lackluster funding levels for agricultural commodity programs. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, a farmer himself who is in the middle of a tough reelection campaign, is pushing for Stabenow and his Democrats to help boost reference prices in the farm bill as a means to provide a higher price floor for struggling wheat farmers in his state.

“I think she’s working to find the money,” Tester said in an interview.

At the same time, Stabenow has committed to blocking conservative attempts to peel off money from the country’s major anti-hunger and nutrition programs, which grew dramatically during the pandemic and make up about 85 percent of the farm bill.

A lot of her role has become getting her colleagues to recalibrate their hopes.

“The challenge is that expectations unfortunately, early on, were set very high for amounts of money that we can’t achieve,” Stabenow said.



Rudy Arredondo
Latino Farmers & Ranchers International, Inc.
731 Central Avenue E
Edgewater, MD 21037

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