DC Update: The Latest on the 2018 Farm Bill

The month of May was busy on both the Farm Bill and funding fronts, though these issues remain unfinished as we move forward into the summer. 

Farm Bill Vote and Scheduled Revote

After the House Agriculture Committee’s consideration of the Farm Bill (officially H.R. 2) in April, the process to move the bill forward on the House floor began in earnest during May. The House Rules Committee requested amendments from all members, and then met on May 15 and 16 to determine which amendments would be considered (i.e. made in order) and how the floor debate would be structured. Over 100 amendments were submitted, mostly by Republican members, and of these 51 were made in order by the Rules Committee.

After the parameters for debate on the House floor were set,  amendment debate began on Thursday, May 17 and continued on Friday May 18. In particular, American Farmland Trust supported the adoption of two amendments. The first, filed by Representative Faso, would expand USDA's ability to assess natural resource concerns through enhanced measurement, evaluation, and reporting on conservation program outcomes. The other, filed by Representatives Costello and Emmer, would direct the Secretary to designate, among existing USDA staff, a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coordinator in each state. Both of these amendments were adopted by a voice vote.

After the consideration of amendments, members of the House cast their votes on H.R. 2. The initial vote on the bill was 198 for and 213 against, with 30 Republicans and all Democrats voting against the bill. Some moderate Republicans voted against the bill for reasons similar to those of their Democratic colleagues, but the surprise failure of the bill during this initial vote came largely from no votes from the Freedom Caucus, who voted against the bill in order to secure action on immigration.  

Speaker Ryan made a motion to reconsider the bill, and that motion was approved several days later. The plan for reconsideration of H.R. 2 is to bring it up for a vote again on June 22, and to hold a vote on the Goodlatte-McCaul immigration bill sometime earlier in that week in an overture to the Freedom Caucus.  

American Farmland Trust continues to hope that the House is able to pass a Farm Bill as a first step in a process towards a final bill that is timely and bipartisan.   

Rescissions Discussions Begin

Discussions of a rescissions bill to reduce previously-passed federal spending began shortly after the two-year budget deal of early February. The White House sent a rescissions package to Congress on May 8, which began a 45-day period for consideration during which it benefits from special procedural protections including exemptions from a Senate filibuster. The deadline for consideration of the bill under these procedural protections also falls on June 22. 

The White House proposal included the following cuts to USDA conservation spending:

  • $144 million from the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program from fiscal years 2014-2017, plus an additional $13 million in EQIP funding from prior to the 2014 Farm Bill.
  • $356 million in unobligated balances on programs that were not extended in the 2014 Farm Bill, but have continued programmatic uses for managing existing contracts and agreements, including:
    • $147 million from the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program.
    • $33 million from the Grassland Reserve Program.
    • $7.5 million from the Agriculture Water Enhancement Program.
    • $155 million to administer the Wetlands Reserve Program.

Appropriations Bills Move Forward

Alongside discussions to cut from previous budget agreements, appropriations bills for fiscal year 2019 have moved forward in both chambers. On the House side, the appropriations bill for agriculture approved by the Appropriations Committee includes $890 million in spending for Conservation Operations, and no cuts to mandatory funding for conservation programs (known as changes in mandatory program spending or CHIMPS). On the Senate side, the bill approved by the Appropriations Committee includes $879.1 million in Conservation Operations, and also does not include CHIMPS. Both levels of funding for Conservation Operations are higher than the FY18 level.

Next, these bills must both be passed by their respective chambers, and the differences ironed out in conference for the agricultural appropriations to be finalized. AFT applauds the increase in funding for Conservation Operations and will continue to follow the appropriations process, including funding levels for agricultural non-point source pollution reduction grants (i.e. 319 Grants) as the appropriations process for Interior and Environment moves forward.

Looking Ahead

Action will continue in June with next steps identified for the House Farm Bill, the rescissions package, and appropriations for FY19. Additionally, the Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to release their bipartisan Farm Bill sometime in the next month. The passage of the House Farm Bill and release of the Senate Farm Bill in the coming weeks would bode well for passage of a 2018 Farm Bill before the September 30 expiration date for the current Farm Bill.