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The Senate Agriculture Committee will take up the 2018 farm bill this week, amid early expectations that "bipartisan" support for the legislation may carry it across the finish line — unlike an effort that failed last month in the House.
The new farm bill, officially known as the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, covers everything from farm subsidies and food stamps to trade and rural development policy. Farmer assistance includes commodity payment programs, as well as subsidized crop insurance.
Yet critics say many of those safety net programs for farmers are wasteful, and not always necessary. They also contend the federal subsidies often go to large agricultural producers and the wealthy and does little for small family farmers.
"I'd like to see some reforms when the committee marks up the bill on Wednesday and then on the Senate floor, whenever that is," said Daren Bakst, senior research fellow in agricultural policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington. "Hopefully there's an open process so some amendments can be considered and voted on."
The Senate farm bill — all 1,000-plus pages of it — was released jointly Friday by Kansas Republican Senator Pat Roberts, chairman of the Agriculture Committee, and Democratic Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, the ranking member.
The Senate legislation comes as the farm economy is under pressure and agriculture is in the cross hairs of a growing trade war with China, Mexico and others. The House failed to pass a farm bill last month, due to an immigration squabble amongst Republicans.
"Given the the Senate bill is coming out and going into the markup in a bipartisan fashion means there's a reason to be very pleased and optimistic," said Andrew Walmsley, congressional relations director for American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation's largest farm organization. "We're hoping to break the farm bill free in the House with some type of agreement around immigration."
At the same time, Walmsley defended farm subsidies as a safety net for producers, and added that it helps the rural economy. He also said they are particularly important today, given strains in the farm economy and trade issues.
"I can tell you on the ground, our folks are hurting, are concerned, and you look at all the uncertainty out there from what Mother Nature throws out you to what we're seeing on trade," Walmsley said. "Farm programs that provide risk management are vitally important to provide some certainty these days."
The farm bill is usually renewed every five years, and the current version is set to expire Sept. 30. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has indicated he wants to get the farm bill through the upper chamber before the July 4 recess.
"Whether it's low prices, over burdensome regulations, or unpredictable trade markets, it's no secret that farmers and ranchers are struggling," Roberts said in a statement Friday. "That's why we need a Farm Bill that works for all producers across all regions. Simply put, our producers need predictability – and that's just what our bill provides."
Purdue University agricultural economist Chris Hurt said net farm incomes are similar to what they were 15 years ago on a dollar basis (not adjusted for inflation). "So if somebody has been working for 15 years, how would you feel if your income was similar to 15 years ago," he said.
The Senate farm legislation contains programs targeting rural America, including expanding high-speed internet in rural communities and fighting the opioid epidemic with prevention and treatment efforts. Also, it provides support for farmer veterans and new farmers starting careers in agriculture.
There's also funding to bolster biodefense preparedness efforts to protect United States agriculture and food.
"From day one, Chairman Roberts and I agreed we would craft a bipartisan bill that works for farmers, families, and rural communities," said Stabenow. "From revitalizing small towns, to promoting good stewardship of our land and water, to expanding local food economies, this Farm Bill is a major bipartisan victory."
Still, the lion's share of the farm bill's funding is devoted to programs such as food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Total benefits paid out last year by SNAP exceeded $63 billion, and went to more than 42 million participants.
The House failed to pass a $867 billion farm bill last month after a group of conservative GOP lawmakers joined Democrats in opposing the legislation. The main reason the conservative Republicans rejected it was a fight within the party over immigration.
Democrats in the House, though, opposed the bill over changes the GOP leadership sought to SNAP.
Specifically, the GOP leadership in the House sought tougher work requirements for SNAP participants in the farm bill. The White House also has been pushing for tougher work requirements for public assistance programs that target low-income Americans, including food stamps and public housing assistance.
The Senate draft farm bill doesn't include those tougher work requirements for SNAP participants, but keeps intact those that now exist in statute. The fact the Senate version leaves out the stricter work requirements means there's still work to be done to bridge differences between the Senate and House bills.