The multiple year journey to farm bill reauthorization is closing in on the finish line. The trip to final passage stopped at the “dairy cliff,” took a fork in the road splitting off food support programs, and visited the rocky hills of farm program reform. Despite the detours, we’ve arrived. After one public meeting and dozens of closed door negotiations, the Senate and House of Representatives conference committee in January finally bridged the divide and reached agreement on a new five-year farm bill.
Once members rolled up their sleeves to negotiate in earnest, talks wrapped up pretty quickly on all major issues—including nutrition spending levels. Negotiators reached an impasse until the final hour on various regulatory issues related to state-by-state agricultural production standards, EPA’s ability to require extra permitting for farmers applying pesticides near U.S. waters, and meat product labeling requirements. Dairy policy was also a final sticking point for all parties involved in negotiations. The House moved quickly last week to vote on passage of the conference report to accompany H.R. 2642, the “Agricultural Act of 2014.” The vote on final passage resulted in an overwhelming margin of 251 to 166. The Senate followed suit this week passing the conference report on February 4 by a strong vote of 68 to 32. President Obama is will sign the bill into law today, Feb. 7.
Lead farm bill negotiators encouraged their respective chambers to vote for final passage by highlighting the bill’s reforms, including repeal of the direct payment program, maintenance of food assistance for families while addressing fraud and misuse in SNAP, reduction in regulatory barriers, expansion of bio-energy production, and investments in agricultural research, among other topics.
Crafting a bill that both parties and both chambers could support left some disappointed in the final agreement. Indeed, the bill created winners and losers. This bill brings about major changes in commodity programs and ramps up the crop insurance program. Nutrition advocates opposed the bill’s $8 billion reduction in SNAP benefits which will require households to receive a higher amount in heating assistance before they automatically qualify for food stamps. Livestock and poultry groups opposed the bill because of the deletion of provisions they supported that would curtail Country of Origin Labeling requirements, restrict Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyard Act activities, and the King amendment to prohibit states from interfering with other states’ means of agricultural production practices. In addition, some lawmakers opposed the measure because they felt the high commodity target prices will distort plantings and because payment limits, the definition of “actively engaged,” and cut-off of subsidies for farmers with high gross income lacked reform in the final agreement. Dairy producers—although supportive of the final agreement—would have preferred a supply management program over the margin insurance program of the final agreement.
Food technologists should be pleased with various aspects of the final agreement. The bill authorized $25 million per year for the Animal Health and Disease Research Program, established a new, uniform matching funds requirement for National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) competitive grants, established new high-priority research initiatives for coffee plant health, corn and soy meal, pulse crop health, and training coordination for agriculture protection. The bill addresses research in specialty crop genomics and authorizes a Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, a new nonprofit corporation designed to supplement USDA’s basic and applied research activities. Additionally, the bill left existing mandatory funding levels for the SNAP-Ed program intact for the next five years. In short, the bill addressed many research priorities.
Bumps in the road and other surprises significantly stalled the journey to final passage of a five-year farm bill. But when Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate earnestly talked through their differences, they were able to introduce a package and pass it in one week. What a relief to see that Congress can function in an ever-divided Washington.
Cornerstone Government Affairs