Farm Bill Here at Last (Maybe)
After several years of debate and development, a new farm bill seems to have finally reached the finish line. At least, the final compromise legislation has been reported out of the conference committee today, Monday, January 27 and appears ready for a floor vote in the House as soon as Wednesday, January 29.
The final legislation represents a compromise achieved among the four principal leaders, the chair and ranking member from each of the House and Senate agricultural committees. The language was signed off and reported out Monday afternoon without a public conference committee meeting, so the final language has just become available for public review and analysis. There are many elements of the bill yet to digest, but core principles of the legislation reflect the challenging policy debate and compromise that has evolved over the past few weeks. The commodity title would include a choice between a price-based and a revenue-based safety net, a reflection of the commodity and regional differences in agriculture. The commodity title also would contain a compromise on dairy policy, with a new margin-based support program, but without a supply control tool pushed by some producer groups.
The dairy compromise seems to be the one that took until the very end to resolve, but the largest compromise in the legislation still appears to be the size of the cuts to nutrition assistance programs. Starting with a Senate proposal for no more than $4 billion in cuts and a House proposal that started at $20 billion, but grew to nearly $40 billion, the final compromise appears to be just less than $9 billion in cuts over 10 years, primarily through tightening rules that otherwise increase food assistance benefits based on receiving minimal benefits from a separate heating assistance program.
The nutrition cuts seem to be the biggest compromise achieved in the farm bill debate, even as it was apparently reached back in December. And, the nutrition cuts may still be the final determinant of whether the whole bill moves forward or still fails. The proposed nutrition cuts simultaneously appear to be too much for the left to accept and not enough for the right. If support for the overall bill is lost on both ends of the political spectrum, the question will be how much support in the middle can be produced to get the final bill to passage. That test remains ahead for now, maybe as soon as Wednesday in the House and shortly thereafter in the Senate.