The Senate passed its bipartisan version of the farm bill Thursday by an 86-11 vote, retaining federal crop insurance, nutrition programs and conservation provisions included in the committee-passed bill.
“We are one step closer to providing farmers and ranchers a farm bill with the certainty and predictability they deserve,” said Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., after the vote.
The bill includes an amendment introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that tightens commodity program eligibility rules. Farm operations would be restricted to having one non-farming manager who could qualify for $125,000 a year in subsidies as a manager. The definition of active farm management would require payment recipients to provide at least 500 hours of management for the farm annually or to provide at least 25 percent of the total management hours required for the operation.
Meanwhile, in a victory for crop insurance supporters, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., agreed not to bring up an amendment cosponsored by Grassley that would have imposed a similar means test on premium subsidies for crop insurance.
Senators began filing amendments to the bill on Monday, but votes were delayed Wednesday after Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy announced his retirement. Kennedy’s announcement gives President Donald Trump the opportunity to fill the vacancy with a conservative justice. Kennedy, known as a moderate and the court’s key swing vote, spent 30 years on the Supreme Court. His opinion in the case regarding the Clean Water Act and its definition of “waters of the United States” is notable for saying that the government’s jurisdiction over wetlands depends upon the “existence of a significant nexus” between wetlands and navigable waters.
Other delays during the floor process in the Senate included an attempt by Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., to add an amendment restraining President Trump’s authority to impose tariffs, including those on steel and aluminum imports. However, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who represents a major steel manufacturing state, objected, saying, “We should not pit farmers against steelworkers.”
In another development, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., challenged Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s, D-N.D., provision in the committee-passed bill that would direct USDA to include Cuba among export markets the department should develop for U.S. agricultural products. The senators reached an agreement Thursday to modify the provision to allow USDA trade promotion funding if it is in accordance with administration policy.
The Senate also adopted an amendment by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., that would provide flexibility for landowners to hay and graze livestock on land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The amendment would allow vegetative cover to be mechanically harvested every three years on land enrolled in CRP under applicable practices, with no more than one-third harvested each year and a 25 percent reduction in CRP rental payments for each acre mechanically harvested or grazed.
The Senate’s farm bill would increase the CRP acreage cap by 1 million acres to 25 million acres. The bill also would reduce the annual rental rate for both general and continuous sign-ups to 88.5 percent of the county rental rate. A troubling new CRP provision in the Senate bill would create a Conservation Reserve Easement Program to pay landowners to permanently give up their rights, as well those of all future owners, to engage in crop production on the land.
By comparison, the House Agriculture Committee-approved farm bill would increase CRP ceiling to 29 million acres and cut rental rates to 80 percent of the average county rental value. In contrast to the House’s version, which eliminated the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Senate bill would leave CSP intact as a standalone program, but reduce the acreage cap from 10 million acres to 7.797 million.
The Trump administration issued a statement June 26 praising the Senate farm bill for tightening the income eligibility limit for commodity subsidies, but said the bill “misses key opportunities” to reform the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). “Most notably, the bill does not strengthen work requirements for able-bodied working age adults,” the statement said.
The statement did not threaten a veto, but said the administration “looks forward to working with the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee to address these and other issues with the farm bill as the process moves forward.”
In the House, Republicans passed their version of a farm bill on June 21 despite united opposition from Democrats, who objected to SNAP reforms that would tighten eligibility and strengthen work requirements for the program.
Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said after the Senate passed its farm bill, “I hope the House will look very closely at the broad support and coalition that we have.”
Next, the House and Senate will appoint conferees to resolve differences between the two measures, with that version of the farm bill going back to both chambers for a vote before it proceeds to the president for enactment. The current farm bill expires Sept. 30.
The NGFA will be working with the conferees to incorporate the best provisions of CRP reform in both bills into the final version.