Farm Bill Politics 4: Down to the Wire

As the September 30th farm bill expiration date looms, Lindsey checks back in for a status update with NYFC’s National Policy Director, Andrew Bahrenburg.

What do the “Fab Four” have to do with farm bill conference negotiations? Will Congress pass a final farm bill in time? And what will happen to the programs young farmers rely on if they don’t?

Take action, and tell your Representatives that we need a #farmbillnow. Text “FARM” to 40649 today.

For more about the farm bill programs young farmers rely on:

Beginning Farmer and Rancher Training Programs in Danger of Farm Bill Cuts

Young Farmers Rely on the Organic Cost Share Program to Afford Organic Cred

 

 

 

Episode Transcript

This is the Young Farmers podcast. I’m Lindsey Lusher Shute.

Currently, there is a Senate version of the farm bill, and a House version of the farm bill. And unless they resolve their differences, the farm bill will expire at the end of this month. And that means the Senate and the House are in something called a conference committee to work it out.

And what are the things they have to work out? Well, the House bill would remove an estimated 2 million – yes, 2 million people from federal nutrition programs; the House version would eliminate funding for farmer markets, organic certification, and it would take billions from conservation programs — even as farmers in the West endure one of the worst droughts of their lives. The bill needs to be passed by September 30th, and our representatives are taking recess starting Monday and won’t return until Sept. 25!

Andrew Bahrenburg, our guy on the ground in Washington, was at the first public conference committee meeting last week. Today, he brings us up to date on what happened.

Lindsey:        So tell me what happened.

Andrew Bahrenburg:

Yeah. So, it was the first official meeting of the Farm Bill Conference Committee yesterday and they met for about three and a half, four hours. There are 56 members of the conference committee and each of them gets three minutes to make their opening statements. Um, so after, after some longer opening statements from the chair and ranking member of the committees, the so-called “big four,” or as Senator Roberts calls them, the “fab four,” they kind of set the tone. And then from there, each member of the committee got three minutes to basically stake out their priority issues.

Lindsey:        Wait, wait, wait–all 57 members got the opportunity to [speak for] three minutes?

Andrew:        Every single one. That’s right. A few were in and out from other, you know, I mean Senator Leahy of course, is one of the top Democrats on the judiciary committee. So he was in the Supreme Court confirmation hearing most of the time. So it was mostly ceremonial I would say. Of course, this is not the venue for actual negotiations. This is more the ceremonial pomp and circumstance around the conference committee. So you saw a lot of members, um, you know, getting in their primary talking points about the things they like and the things they don’t like.

Lindsey:        So it’s like the opening ceremonies for the conference committee.

Andrew:        Exactly.

Lindsey:        How do all fifty-some people get beyond their talking points to actually, you know, work this thing out?

Andrew:        At the end of the day they really don’t. Right? I mean, I think they will meet as a big group like this. You know, they did yesterday. They likely will at least once more. The main negotiations are happening behind closed doors with the top members of the committee. That’s not really a mystery who will be negotiating the actual brass tacks of this thing. It’ll be Senators Roberts and Stabenow and Congressman Conaway and Peterson, the people who have been really steering this ship from the get go for the last, you know, the better part of two years now.

Lindsey:        Who’ve been doing it all along..

Andrew:        Mmhmm, and their staff. And there are members of their staff who, you know, know more about every single line in those bills than anyone here in Washington. They’ll be putting in some long hours ahead, particularly as we get closer and closer to the September 30th deadline.

Lindsey:        But the actual negotiations, none of that is happening in the public view.

Andrew:        Not yet. I mean there will be some controlled releases to the press. For instance, after the long three and a half to four hour conference committee meeting yesterday, the Fab Four, they then met privately immediately after that meeting to really continue negotiating. And that’s more or less the dynamic and then you know, coming out of that couple hours long meeting, but they kind of held forth with members of the DC press. But again, you know, most of their comments publicly are not real substantive, because, you know, these are really delicate negotiations and I think to say too much publicly, for better or worse, could swing things in one direction or the other. Or at least you lose some degree of control over how negotiations are going. And they are trying to thread a very small needle here.

Lindsey:        I mean, just the idea that they’re going to be able to do this by the end of the month. Is that realistic? I mean, just a month. It doesn’t turn out to be a whole lot of time.

Andrew:        I would say it’s possible. It’s going to be very difficult. There are still are some pretty big issues and big differences between the two bills. I mean the big wild cards are non-farm bill related things that are also required of these legislators in September. Right? So the entire federal government for 2019 is not currently funded. So September 30th is not just the deadline for the farm bill. It’s the deadline for funding the federal government. You’ve seen President Trump saying that if a shutdown happens, it happens, right? Having kind of a cavalier attitude toward the entire federal government grinding to a screeching halt. Um, and then there are some other big things. Of course there’s a supreme court nominee to be possibly confirmed this month as well. And you have some potential battles over immigration, and oh yeah, every member of the house is on the ballot in early November for reelection and a third of the Senate. So there are plenty of things that could get in the way of them doing a farm bill on time.

Lindsey:        If it doesn’t happen by the end of September, what do they do?

Andrew:        That’s an important question. They have to pass an extension, which is not a particularly uncommon thing to have happened with a farm bill. Uh, it’s such a big piece of legislation, you know, it’s a five year authorization bill, but also in part because politics have gotten more divisive than partisan over the last decade or two. So it’s gotten harder even with the farm bill. The big concern particularly for a lot of our priorities is with those so called stranded programs that would not automatically be extended because they’re so small. Right. Which is, you know, almost ironic in that sense. They’re the smallest, cost the least, and yet they’re the hardest to make sure they continue. So if we reach October one, we wake up that morning, and even if an extension has passed, unless that extension specifically funds those programs (like beginning farmer and rancher development program, like organic cost share, like value-added producer grants, farmer’s market promotion, that kind of stuff), those programs will in effect cease to exist at least for the time being until they pass a permanent farm bill.

Lindsey:        Right. Which is what happened in 2014, and then there wasn’t a year of funding for projects that are funded by the beginning farmer and rancher development program, which has a big impact for a lot of the young farmers in our network, because those are the training programs and technical support programs that many of them rely on.

Andrew:        Exactly…which isn’t to say that those programs aren’t already impacted, right? Because so the way that money kind of moves out the door through USDA is not always just, you know, “here’s some money.” But instead, you know, they’ll put out requests for proposals for this or that program. There’s a whole bureaucratic process that has to take place before you can start writing checks to farmers or to community based organizations or to lenders or something like that, and so even by coming up to the deadline like we are right now is inevitably going to cause some delay in those requests or applications getting out the door. Now obviously those problems would pale in comparison to an entire year of no funding for some of those programs.

Lindsey:        Of course.

Andrew:        But the impact will still be felt regardless.

Lindsey:        And so what are we hearing on big ticket items like SNAP and food stamps? Do we expect that the house is going to back down on some of the work requirements? I know just right before conference committee, President Trump tweeted out his support for the work requirements. I mean, how is that going to play out?

Andrew:        And he did so again earlier this week and Vice President Pence has as well. In a way that seemed almost a little bit coordinated, right? Like they are still digging in and at least trying to fortify the house position on some of that stuff a little bit. Now, of course like that is also quite possibly negotiating tactic, right? You want to seem like you’re not going to cave right up until the moment that you maybe do make some concessions. There has been some indication that the both sides have been moving a little bit. There were reports earlier this week that Chairman Conaway, the chair of the House Ag Committee, had essentially made kind of a compromise proposal and had put it on the table in the form of a memo that kind of outlined some of the things within the nutrition title that he could envision softening on, I guess. No one but for a handful of people well above my pay grade have seen that memo. Right. So we have no idea what’s in it. The press has only been able to report that it exists, but we’re not sure where he has identified there is wiggle room, but it’s at least a signal that they’re starting to kind of do the horse trading that will be necessary, right. And I think because the Senate Farm Bill passed with 86 Yes votes at the hearing yesterday, there were two senators absent during that vote that would have voted yes. So really it would have gotten 88 votes. Right. That’s an overwhelming majority that gives them a very strong negotiating position on this stuff. You know, that’s kind of impacting all of these negotiations, right? It’s to say, “look, our bill is bipartisan and popular. It doesn’t have all of those work requirements that made yours so divisive. We’re holding all the cards here and we can’t pass anything that’s not going to get 60 votes. So you know, put your gun down and we’ll do the same.”

Lindsey:        Yeah.

Andrew:        Yeah. So that’s the big piece as you correctly identified. I mean, and then there’s plenty of other things, especially around the conservation title that I think are also going to come down to the wire. Right. I expect that those will be the last pieces to fall into place. And particularly around funding. Right. I think where negotiations have gotten so far is on a lot of the policy pieces because that’s like an easier place to start, but the actual money discussions, which are arguably the most important, those are kinda gonna be saved till the end I guess.

Lindsey:        All right, so what’s the next step here? When’s the next public meeting of the conference committee? When do you start to see some text?

Andrew:        I mean little bits and pieces of text will trickle out and, and I think that’s, you know, you asked earlier how transparent this will be. I think the answer is not very for now. Um, but they are pulling in key stakeholders on particular chunks of the bill. Right? So it’s like for us, you know, if there are beginning farmer provisions of the farm bill being negotiated, um, you know, a lot of times the committee staff will kind of reach out to us and be like “like how would you feel if we were to move this section and eliminate this part?” Right. So that will happen across all stakeholders, I think as we go. There is no next meeting formally on the books, uh, so that’s an open question. The Senate Ag Committee interestingly did schedule a hearing for next week on trade where they are hauling USDA’s topic economist before the Senate committee, probably to yell at him about tariffs and trade and also ask a lot of questions about that trade bailout package, for which the application process began this week. Money is going to start moving out the door at a pretty steady clip.

Andrew:        And so who receives that money and where it goes is going to be a particular interest to the Senate Ag Committee.

Lindsey:        And what day is that hearing scheduled for?

Andrew:        That’s on the 14th. That very much seems like an election year type hearing. So every member can kind of stake out their turf and talking points on the trade situation, particularly those up for reelection in big ag states.

Lindsey:        So even if they support the administration that has created the tariffs, uh, and they can’t do anything about it from a policy perspective, at least they are on record saying they don’t support it or they’re concerned about impacts.

Andrew:        And asking some tough questions of the people overseeing where this money goes, which to be clear is their job as the legislative branch– to conduct that level of oversight. So I don’t mean to cast too cynical a pall over it, you know, it is a very necessary hearing I think. And a lot of us will be watching to see what sorts of questions are asked and the answers given.

Lindsey:        Yeah. And these senators are in a really tough position, right? I mean because I think that they have very, I mean they might support the administration on, on some level, even if it’s just in support of their party, but you know, the impacts at home are very real. Um, and I think many of them are quite upset about the tariff situation. So…

Andrew:        Yeah. And I think it’s particularly interesting for members that are big on agriculture and may sit on that committee but also come from big manufacturing states. Right. Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio comes to mind who is a Democrat and so obviously is often very critical of things the Trump administration does. But at the same time, as steel workers in Ohio celebrate those tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, he has to walk that line between knowing that the retaliation is, you know, the hammer’s going to come down on farmers in his state, but at the same time he’s got an interest group in, in a lot of the manufacturing sector. I don’t envy that position one bit.

Lindsey:        Yeah. On one level, I guess maybe it’s a difficult position to be in, but it’s good that senators like Senator Brown are, you know, looking out for all sides of the equation here.

Andrew:        Mhmm. It kind of underscores the point about global trade, which is that when you get to that level, everything’s connected, right? Like you can’t separate raw metals from soybeans traded on the global marketplace, right? Everything is connected. And if you pull on one thread, all of a sudden the whole thing starts to come apart.

 

Lindsey:

 

Well we certainly hope that the farm bill doesn’t fall apart and we will be closely following what comes next in the days ahead.

If you want to take action on the Farm Bill and join the National Young Farmers Coalition’s network of activists text ‘FARM’ to 40649.

There is a lot at stake here.

As a reminder, the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach Program (FOTO), remember Tiffany Washington from an earlier episode, is in the Senate version of the bill. That’s the funding for beginning farmer training nationwide, and outreach and support to veteran farmers, indigenous farmers, and historically underrepresented farmers. I don’t know who is against this program, but it won’t be in the bill if our network doesn’t step up.

The Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP for all policy wonks out there) is the program we need to support farmers markets and local and regional food. The House bill eliminates funding for it all.

To take action, text “FARM” to 40649.

The Conservation Stewardship Program–USDAs largest conservation program–assists farmers in taking care of natural resource concerns on their farm — resources like soil, air and water that impact everyone. A recent study showed that for every dollar spent, the Conservation Stewardship Program returns nearly 4 dollars in public benefit. The House bill also gets rid of this one.

To take action, text FARM to 40649.

SNAP benefits give a very modest boost to families in need. The maximum value is $1.86 per meal. The House bill would take this small bit of help away from nearly 2 million people, including 740,000 adults living in households with children – many of whom do work, but whose wages are so low they qualify for assistance. These are the ‘working poor.’

To take action, text FARM to 40649.

We’ll keep you posted.

If you like what we are doing here, please take a second to review us in iTunes, or tell a friend about the show.

Andrew, thanks for your updates. This podcast is made with support from the staff at National Young Farmers Coalition. It’s recorded at Radio Kingston, and edited by Hannah Beal. Podcast transcript by Julie Davis.

See you next week.

 

 

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