Senate advances farm bill that re-ups federal programs, but some still have concerns

Senate advances farm bill that re-ups federal programs, but some still have concerns
A combine and tractor pulling a grain wagon harvest a field of corn west of Aurora, Nebraska. (World-Herald News Service)

WASHINGTON — The troubled 2018 farm bill took an important step forward Wednesday and is now on its way to the Senate floor, where it could be considered as early as next week.

The Senate’s farm bill represents a bipartisan re-upping of federal programs ranging from crop insurance to rural development.

Advanced on a 20-1 vote Wednesday by the Senate Agriculture Committee, the bill revives at least some hope that it could reach President Donald Trump’s desk before many current policies expire in September. It comes at a time of great anxiety among farmers and ranchers dealing with upheaval in international trade and unpredictable markets.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he wants the Senate to vote on the legislation before lawmakers leave town for their July 4th break.

The legislation took a hit last month when it suffered a defeat on the House floor. That version was taken down by largely unrelated ideological fights surrounding immigration and the bill’s work requirements for what are commonly referred to as food stamps, which represent the bulk of the funding in the farm bill.

Sens. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, were among the committee members Wednesday supporting the Senate legislation, which takes a bipartisan approach and avoids major fights over issues such as food stamps.

“This bill continues a strong farm safety net that includes crop insurance, my number one priority going into this process,” Fischer said in a press release. “Additionally, the bill recognizes the importance of our trade promotion programs and builds upon efforts to enhance agricultural productivity by expanding broadband access in rural America.”

She also pointed to her amendments included in the bill that relate to livestock hauling regulations, irrigation practices and high-speed Internet.

Ernst touted provisions that she pushed to include, such as incentivizing rural and urban partnerships for conservation and providing mental health resources for rural areas.

“Timely passage of the Farm Bill is critical to providing certainty and predictability to Iowa’s farmers and ranchers,” Ernst said in her own release.

The only dissenting vote came from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who objected to the lack of tighter limitations on farm subsidy payments.

Grassley has long complained that existing limits on the amount of farm subsidies a single person can receive include too many loopholes. He said he’ll take his fight over that to the Senate floor.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said after the vote that he hopes the bill can bring some much-desired predictability and certainty to farmers and that the House will pass something so the process of reconciling the two versions can move forward. He expects a “totally partisan bill” from the House. “I think that’s very unfortunate, but that’s where the House wants to go.”

Anna Johnson of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska, applauded parts of the Senate bill and decried others.

She praised, for example, the strengthening of coordination between conservation programs and crop insurance, but like Grassely she criticized the lack of payment limitations.

“We call on the Senate to close loopholes that allow excessively high payments of taxpayer dollars to go to a small number of large and wealthy operations,” Johnson said.