The Farm Bill is Moving. Buckle Up.

The Farm Bill is Moving. Buckle Up.

By Jennifer Lukawski
Co-Lead of BGR’s Sustainability, Nutrition, and Commodities Working Group

After more than a year of hearings and listening sessions, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn T. Thompson (R-PA) has released a title-by-title overview of his draft farm bill and scheduled a markup of the legislation for May 23rd. The announcement marks a major milestone; however, the road to a new farm bill is going to be a bumpy one.

While draft text is not yet available, according to a high-level summary of Chairman Thompson’s proposal, the committee seeks to increase farm safety net programs, enhance crop insurance, and expand conservation programs. Nutrition funding would not be cut, but changes to how the benefits are calculated will be included.

In response to the overview’s release, Ranking Member David Scott (D-VA) quickly rejected the proposal, arguing it contains “poison pill policies” that will doom its chances of becoming law. The farm bill has traditionally been a bipartisan effort, and while Chairman Thompson expects to pick up some Democratic support in committee, a fully bipartisan product is currently elusive, and the level and nature of concessions necessary to garner significant Democratic support is unclear for the moment.

Not to be outdone, Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) soon thereafter released her own vision for reauthorizing agriculture and nutrition policies, vowing to reject the House GOP’s proposed changes to nutrition and climate program funding. Similar to the House bill, the “Rural Prosperity and Food Security Act” similarly aims to expand crop insurance and conservation programs, but also makes greenhouse gas reductions a major focus of the proposal and protects USDA’s recent changes to the Thrifty Food Plan to raise SNAP benefits.

In response to Chairman Stabenow’s proposal, Ranking Member John Boozman (R-AR) issued a statement welcoming the release of the committee’s Democratic priorities and said Republican senators will release their farm bill framework after the House considers its bill. A markup date in the Senate has not yet been scheduled.

The pressure has been on for House and Senate authorizers to show their respective cards on their plans to rewrite this massive law impacting not just farmers but all Americans. The farm bill sets farm, conservation, forestry, and nutrition policy and authorizes various agricultural programs. Last December, Congress approved a one-year extension of current law, setting a new September 30th deadline to allow additional time for committee negotiations to continue. Farmers and ranchers have since grown increasingly concerned about the delay, calling for urgency in passing a modernized farm bill that reflects the changes the agriculture industry has undergone over the last five years. It is one of the few remaining must-pass bills this Congress and is a big ticket one, at that.

A massive undertaking, the renewal of the farm bill has been delayed because of the Speaker battle last fall, the drawn-out FY24 appropriations process, a lack of funding options to expand farmers’ safety net, and long-standing disagreements over competing policy priorities. The latest hangup is the much-

anticipated CBO score which will be necessary to move forward. Despite the delays, House and Senate authorizers seem ready to move this process to the next crucial step in what will continue to be a complicated process that will begin, initially, as a partisan exercise.

Here is a deeper dive on the major policy issues that will require careful navigating for the bill to progress its way through Congress and to the President for his signature:

Nutrition Assistance

The nutrition title is by far the largest and costliest title in the farm bill. The Congressional Budget Office baseline projection from May of 2023 shows that nutrition programs will comprise more than 80 percent of the farm bill’s spending, with a price tag of more than $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Most of this is attributable to the soaring cost of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Funding for SNAP has nearly doubled since the last farm bill was enacted, from $65 billion annually in 2018 to an estimated $127 billion in 2023 (some of which is attributable to high inflation and pandemic-era spending).

SNAP has always been a partisan battle line, with most Republicans typically seeking to rein in increases in both SNAP’s spending and enrollment, and most Democrats trying to expand them. SNAP benefits are calculated based on the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan, which serves as the basis for setting benefit levels for SNAP. Each year, these benefit levels are adjusted for inflation.

In 2021, the Biden administration made sweeping changes to the TFP by permanently updating the program’s cost levels and market baskets. The reevaluated plan, however, did not apply previous, longstanding administration policy that imposed cost-neutrality. The result was a 25 percent increase in SNAP benefits, the largest expansion of supplemental nutrition assistance in the program’s 45-year history. The USDA cites language in the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 (“the 2018 Farm Bill”) and President Biden’s Executive Order 14002 as authority to disregard the cost-neutral framework. However, Republicans have taken strong issue with this interpretation, arguing the update ignores past precedent, was done without the input of Congress, and without regard to its budgetary impact. Chairman Thompson has insisted that the next arm bill restore past precedent by placing new guardrails on the way SNAP payments are determined to ensure budget neutrality.  Such a proposal would reduce future outlays by $30 billion. While current beneficiaries would not be impacted, Democratic members are calling this a cut and making it clear that any reductions in SNAP spending would cross a red line for them. Given fighting over SNAP benefits delayed passage in the House for two years during the last farm bill re-write, this will be the largest hurdle for Congress to clear and likely increases the odds of a short-term extension into a lame duck session or potentially 2025.

Climate Funding

A major part of President Biden’s environmental agenda was enacted in the partisan 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which provided $19.5 billion to the Department of Agriculture for “climate-smart” agriculture and forestry initiatives that prioritize greenhouse gas-reducing and carbon sequestering activities. The Biden administration hailed this as a historic win to address his climate change priorities and saw it as a pathway for a more climate-focused farm bill.

House and Senate Agriculture Committee Republicans have been pushing back, saying the new program excludes farmers and ranchers who need money to help fund conservation, natural resource, and wildlife habitat solutions that are not prescribed by the USDA but that offer flexibility to best meet their needs at the local level. Democrats have made it clear, however, that any attempt by Republicans to redirect IRA money earmarked for conservation and environmental programs would be a non-starter. In fact, Chairwoman Stabenow (D-MI) said she would prefer punting on the farm bill rather than strike a deal with Republicans that would limit climate-smart agriculture funding, or the SNAP program for that matter.

Both Chairman Thompson and Chairwoman Stabenow seek to bring the Inflation Reduction Act conservation funding into the Farm Bill to permanently expand the baseline and increase conservation programs by 25 percent. But the House summary stops short of pledging not to remove climate guardrails from the IRA funding. Instead, committee Republicans aim to protect voluntary, locally-led incentives that previously guided farm conservation programs.

Farm Income Safety Net

Set by Congress, reference prices are the trigger for crop subsidy payments covered by the Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage programs. Through this reference price support, farmers can receive payments to make up the difference when market prices fall below the determined threshold. Arguing that the current reference price formula does not adequately cover their needs, many farmers have been advocating for higher reference prices to make up for increased production expenses that cut into their bottom line. Deficit hawks in Congress and conservative organizations are expressing opposition to such an effort, arguing that increasing reference prices is far too costly, interferes with a free market, and turns what is supposed to be a safety program into an entitlement. They also argue that since payments are linked to production, that the largest producers get the bulk of funding at the expense of small- and medium-sized producers.

The reality is that raising reference prices will not be cheap or easy, particularly since the Congressional Budget Office is having a hard time projecting future crop prices, making it difficult to estimate the cost of any increase. Then there is the question or how to pay for it. There are limits on expanding the farm bill’s baseline or increasing funding for certain programs.

Authorizers will have to get creative with how to find new funding beyond the current farm bill baseline, and both Republicans and Democrats will have to agree on where those funds are pulled from. An increase in reference prices would be an expensive step that could potentially add billions of dollars to the cost of crop support. Yet Chairman Thompson thinks an agreement can be had, saying he has found a way to fully fund farm safety net programs without touching the IRA or SNAP programs.

What to Expect

History tells us that drafting, debating, and voting on such a massive bill – not to mention producing an eventual bipartisan agreement — will take a significant amount of time and intense negotiations. There are as many as 60-80 House Republicans who are expected to oppose any farm bill, making Chairman Thompson’s job all the more challenging as he launches the renewal process in the House. The markup process is expected to be contentious, and floor consideration could be especially messy. Regardless, the law’s reauthorization will by necessity require bipartisan support. Should Congress not reauthorize the bill by the September deadline, another extension will be necessary – pushing the bill’s consideration into the lame duck session or more likely into the next Congress, where the political dynamics could shift significantly after the November elections and where high profile, high-cost fights over the debt limit and expiring tax cuts will take center stage.

Op-Ed: Republican Women Are Set to Make Their Mark in the 118th Congress

By Jennifer Larkin Lukawski
Principal, BGR Group
jlarkin@bgrdc.com

While Republicans didn’t experience the anticipated tsunami of victories in the 2022 election cycle, they did what seemed unthinkable just a few short years ago. For the second cycle in a row, they elected a record-breaking 42 Republican women to serve in Congress, including 33 in the House and 9 in the Senate. While this historical increase is exciting, Republicans still have a way to go before the Congress better reflects the party and the country.

It was the 2018 midterm election results that prodded Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R-NY) to do an autopsy of the party’s failure to elect more women. After all the votes were counted, the number of Republican women elected to the House of Representatives shrank to just 13 members —12 incumbents and a single freshman member. This was the lowest number in their ranks in nearly three decades. Compare that with the 89 Democratic women who were elected that same cycle, 35 of whom were freshmen.

Stefanik recognized that such a trend was unsustainable for the GOP, and that she was going to step up and do something about it. Putting aside the unwritten rules of her party, she focused not just on recruiting female candidates to run, but more importantly on raising money for them early in the process so that they could make that crucial first step of winning their primaries. Working alongside other political action committees such as VIEW PAC and Winning for Women, these efforts paid off beautifully. In 2020, the number of Republican women in Congress more than doubled from 13 to 31.

Fast forward to today, where Republican women continue to make history as they grow their ranks in Congress. Come January 3rd, several new female Republican “firsts” will be sworn in as members of the 118th Congress, for example:

  • Erin Houchin (R-IN), who has served as an Indiana senator in the 47th district since 2014, will be the first woman to represent IN-09, located in the southern part of the state.
  • Monica De La Cruz (R-TX), a single mother of two children and small business owner who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, will be the first Republican to represent her district in deep South Texas.
  • Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-OR), a small business owner and former mayor of the Portland suburb of Happy Valley, is the first Republican woman elected to the U.S. House in Oregon, the first Latina elected to Congress from Oregon, and the first Republican to flip a congressional seat in Oregon since 1994.
  • Katie Britt (R-AL), a former aide to outgoing Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) and President and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama, will be the first female to be elected U.S. Senator in the state of Alabama, the youngest woman to ever serve in the Senate, and the only woman in the Senate with school-aged children.

Republican women are not just winning races, they are using their growing power in Congress to lock down prized committee and leadership roles, some for the first time in history. Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) is set to serve as the first female Chair of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, and Congresswoman Kay Granger (R-TX) is in line to serve as the first female Republican Chair of the equally powerful Appropriations Committee.

Now that they have a majority in the House, the Republican party will be able to show voters that the women elected to Congress will not only have a seat at the table but will have their voices heard. This will entail party leaders helping these new faces get up to speed quickly so they can hit the ground running in pursuit of policies that will benefit their constituents. Doing so will help to prove that Republican women who raise their hands and run for office can win their races and make a real difference for themselves, their families, their community, and their country.

 

OPINION: Shock and Awe in the Garden State

What happened in the New Jersey gubernatorial race will have broad ramifications across the country and into 2022.

By Jennifer Lukawski, BGR Principal

November 3, 2021

While most of the attention today is on Glenn Youngkin’s come-from-behind victory over former Governor Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia gubernatorial campaign, a nationalized race by any measure, the real story may be in New Jersey. Incumbent Governor Phil Murphy (D-NJ) aimed to become the first Democrat since 1977 to be re-elected in the Garden State. In what has become a reliably blue state, the race should have been a shoo-in for him. His Republican opponent, Jack Ciattarelli, was a relative unknown. What’s more, Governor Murphy had a significant war chest, was running in a state that President Biden won by 16 points, and there are one million more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state. Governor Murphy has been successful in delivering on many of the progressive promises he made in his 2017 campaign, such as a minimum wage hike, free community college tuition, and new gun control laws. He was also commanding an 11-point lead in the polls as late as last week. Yet here we are, the day after, and the race is still too close to call. Pundits and political observers, not to mention the Murphy campaign, are in disbelief that this race is a nail-biter. So, what happened?

For starters, Democrats did not show up. In 2020, 2.6 million people voted for President Biden in New Jersey. Last night, only 1.2 million people stepped up to vote for Governor Murphy. A drop off of 1.4 million voters is stunning, even for an off-year election. While votes are still being counted in the Democratic strongholds of Essex and Hudson counties, Democrats up and down the ballot fell far short of expectations in the blue-collar areas of South Jersey. In fact, NJ State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, an 11-year incumbent and the second-most powerful elected state official behind Murphy, is currently trailing a Republican truck driver who spent just $153 on his campaign. If defeated, Sweeny would join a list of stunning upsets in legislative races across the state.

Republicans, on the other hand, bitterly frustrated by having some of the highest property taxes in the country and suffering through strict COVID-19 lockdowns, showed up in droves to vote for a candidate that most had likely never heard of or who knew little about. Ciattarelli, a businessman and former member of the NJ General Assembly, was able to outperform Governor Murphy in the key Republican stronghold counties of Monmouth and Ocean, the area of the Jersey Shore where Chris Christie had also outperformed John Corzine 12 years ago. Oddly enough, Monmouth County is where Governor Murphy lives.

While the race is still too close to call and will likely be headed for a recount, Republicans in New Jersey have a lot to be excited about – win or lose. Today feels a lot like post-Election Day 2009, which led to a big night in 2010 when Republicans reclaimed their majority in the U.S. House, picked up 6 seats in the U.S. Senate, and added 6 GOP governors to their ranks. We will learn a lot more about what happened in the New Jersey election in the days and weeks ahead. Coupled with Glenn Youngkin’s big victory in Virginia, it is clear the Democrats are in political trouble and have a lot to prove in one year’s time.