Sat. Jun 15th, 2024

5 takeaways from competing Democratic, GOP farm bill plans

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun4,2024

House Republicans and Democrats have released two dueling visions for the farm bill, the massive $1.5 trillion omnibus that underpins the U.S. food system.

The contrasting proposals show the fault lines between the two parties’ visions for American agriculture as it is beset by rising supply costs and climate change.

But despite these divisions, there are significant points of overlap between the two proposals: Both support big spending on rural broadband and the high-tech “precision agriculture” it enables; put an emphasis on boosting the trade of American products abroad; and include funding for research at America’s land grant schools.

Now, with a sizable House minority of Republican hard-liners willing to scorch any bill that doesn’t include significant cuts to entitlements, House Agriculture Committee Chair Glenn “G.T.” Thompson (R-Pa.) faces a choice between two difficult options: try to pass a partisan farm bill and risk the Freedom Caucus blowing it up, or pass one that is sufficiently moderate to get Democrats on board.

Thompson told Agri-Pulse in March that he was shooting for the second option, and “‘baking’ bipartisan proposals into the legislation.”

But the contradictions between the parties — and the factions within them — prevented Congress from reaching a consensus on the farm bill last year, leading lawmakers to instead pass a supplemental bill to avoid a sudden defunding of billions of dollars in programs that the American food system depends on.

Congress has until Sept. 30 to close these gaps and pass the bill. Here are the main takeaways from the two proposals.

Clashing over conservation funds

In their proposals, both Republicans and Democrats emphasize the importance of getting more money into the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) highly popular — and brutally oversubscribed — conservation programs.

Programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program help farmers pay for a broad range of projects — from cover cropping and brush control to prescribed burns — that help maintain soil and water health.

Both parties’ plans would put more money into the programs, which currently turn away about two-thirds of worthy applicants for lack of funds.

The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is already slated to  reverse those numbers, such that about two-thirds would get funded — provided the projects offer some benefit to the climate.

But how to handle those IRA funds is a sticking point between the proposals. Democrats insist that the money allocated by the legislation must remain focused on cutting the climate impact of agriculture — though they are willing to keep an existing, and controversial, provision that reserves 50 percent of non-IRA funds for livestock operations.

Republicans, by contrast, want to use IRA funds to cover all conservation programs — and to expand the category of programs that are counted as conservation. The GOP didn’t specify what new programs would be included under their proposal.

Such an expansion is popular with Senate Republicans, but unpopular with the public. It also constitutes a “red line” for Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), a spokesperson told Michigan Farm News, and is unpopular with House Democrats, who said in February that they would not “not support a farm bill that takes IRA conservation funding away from its intended purpose.” 

Fighting over food aid

Democrats have also drawn an explicit red line in regards to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The program receives about 80 percent of current farm bill spending and is the glue binding together the fragile political consensus between urban and rural representatives that has been essential to getting the omnibus passed.

As The Hill reported, Thompson has insisted the Republican caucus doesn’t intend to cut SNAP.

But he does want to reverse Biden-era reforms that increase food aid to keep up with the rising cost of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables — and to bar future presidents from increasing SNAP payments for any reason other than inflation.

While doing this wouldn’t cut any current benefits, it would freeze them in place — effectively cutting $30 billion from SNAP over the next decade, and stymieing USDA efforts to make sure low-income people can still eat healthy food, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

House Republicans said in a statement that this would save $300 billion over the next decades, while correcting “egregious Executive branch overreach” and barring “future unelected bureaucrats from arbitrarily increasing or decimating SNAP benefits.”

But Senate Democrats panned these proposed actions. “We don’t take money out of the nutrition title to fund another part of the bill, which has never been done,” Stabenow told reporters. 

Dealing with climate change through the back door

The steady drumbeat of extreme weather disasters — wind, hail, drought and flooding — have sent crop losses skyrocketing over the past three years. 

A 2023 report by the Environmental Working Group found that losses from extreme weather had spiked by 500 percent just between 2021 and 2023. That surge is in turn leading to record crop insurance payouts — which are one big reason why Thompson is looking to SNAP for a new source of funding to stanch the bleeding.

Both parties’ plans seek to bolster crop insurance programs, in large part to get the U.S. out of a cycle of repeatedly having to pass unplanned, multibillion-dollar disaster supplements. But they differ on how to do this.

Republicans want to have taxpayers pick up more of the cost of coverage while building out the private insurance markets.

This proposed course of action has attracted some criticism, as some experts have argued that crop insurance programs disproportionately subsidize the biggest, richest landowners — and buffer them against any need to meaningfully adapt their operations to meet a changing climate.

A November 2023 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggested that taxpayers’ share should be reduced for the highest-income farmers — a small minority of highest-income farmers whose operations bring in more than $900,000 per year. 

Those 1,341 high-income farmers received far more from federally backed crop insurance programs than they paid in, according to the report — about $2.19 in taxpayer support for every dollar they spent on premiums.

The GAO suggested in the report that while cutting such farmers’ benefits by 15 percent would still leave them getting back more than they put in — $1.59 for every dollar — it would significantly increase the stability of crop insurance programs.

In December, Thompson blasted the “one-sided report,” which he said wasn’t “worth the paper it is printed on,“ and said the report “completely ignore[s] the benefits of Federal crop insurance, which is one of the most successful examples of a public-private partnership in existence.”

Democrats, for their part, are seeking to make crop insurance more accessible to small farmers and to producers that typically get left out of federal crop insurance programs. 

They also want to direct USDA to create “index plans” that would provide automatic payouts for climate disasters — for example, when hail falls over a corn field or a wildfire burns near a vineyard, potentially ruining the taste and marketability of the crop — without making producers go through a contested claims process.

Offering new support for fruits and vegetables

Support for fruits and vegetables — euphemistically known in the USDA lexicon as “specialty crops” — marks one significant point of consensus between the parties, though the Democrats’ plan would offer more backing than the Republicans’.

This category of crops, which includes those most likely to fill American grocery carts and refrigerators, is largely left out of USDA crop insurance plans. 

Farmers who grow produce like onions, apples, broccoli or carrots don’t have access to the same disaster-mitigating financial tools as those who grow shelf-stable commodities like corn, wheat, rice, soy or peanuts.

This bit of arcane financial policy has stark impacts on the American food system, and is one reason why processed foods in the U.S. are so much cheaper than whole foods, despite being less healthy.

Democrats’ plan directs the USDA to create new crop insurance options for specialty crops — as well as diversified farms, whose constantly changing medley of crops makes them both more resilient and harder for conventional insurance providers to cover.

While the Republican policy platform is less explicit, it also directs the USDA to research new insurance policies through “robust engagement with specialty crop producers.”

Fissuring over America’s forests

Both parties’ proposals tout the role of America’s forests in the country’s conservation goals. 

U.S. public and private forestlands cover 78,000 square miles — the approximate size of Kansas — and do invaluable work in siphoning down carbon, providing habitats for wildlife and cleaning the water that cities rely on.

But nearly a century of mismanagement and oversuppression of natural wildfire — particularly in the American West — has left the country with a destructive fire problem that has in many areas reached apocalyptic levels, in some cases rendering entire communities uninsurable. 

Democrats and Republicans agree on the need to reduce wildfire risk and improve forest health, and on some of the steps for how to do so. Both parties want to increase the size and scope of the Good Neighbor Authority, which lets federal managers contract with counties and tribes to thin publicly owned forests. And both want to build out new markets for novel American-made wood products, like the mass-timber technology that is being used to build skyscrapers.

But the policy documents reveal a broader philosophical divide on what Americas forests are, and should be. 

Republicans’ vision rests on the idea of the privately run “working forest” — a relatively homogenous plantation where trees like pines are grown and tended like any other crop. 

The GOP seeks to increase the health of these lands by reducing forest fire risk through increased logging — which would be incentivized under the Republican plan both by cutting environmental regulations and contracting private companies to work on public land.

The Senate Democrats’ plan, by contrast, is focused on the role of the public-sector forests, rather than private ones — and on the role those landscapes can play in increasing water quality and slowing climate change. 

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

Related Post

2 thoughts on “5 takeaways from competing Democratic, GOP farm bill plans”
  1. As a farmer myself, I appreciate the bipartisan efforts to support rural broadband and precision agriculture. It’s crucial for American agriculture to stay competitive in the global market. I hope Congress can set aside their differences and pass a farm bill that benefits all farmers.

  2. It’s clear that both parties have differing priorities when it comes to the farm bill, but it’s encouraging to see some common ground in supporting rural broadband and advancing trade opportunities. Hopefully, a bipartisan approach can be achieved to ensure the stability of the American food system.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *