The current version of the farm bill expires in less than three months, so the spotlight the past two weeks was on the House and Senate versions of the farm bill. A version of the bill has now passed both houses of Congress, although there is still much work to be done.
The House vote was first in line, and there was plenty to discuss the $860 billion farm bill. The vote was mostly along party lines, with the final tally at 213-211. It has been reported that this was the first farm bill to pass either chamber of Congress with the support of only one party.
The biggest issue with the House vote had to do with SNAP - the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as "food stamps." The gist was that the new piece of legislation contains new work requirements for recipients of food stamps. Republicans assert that there is a need for reform of the SNAP program, and to social welfare programs in general. Democrats, on the other hand, take the position that needy families will lose eligibility for food stamps and that thousands of children will lose their enrollment in free and reduced-cost school meal programs.
On June 28, the Senate passed its version of the farm bill by an 86-11 vote. The support on the Senate side was bipartisan. The Senate version has fewer controversial changes to prior legislation than the House version.
So now what?
The two bills now go to conference committee to have their differences reconciled. The House version and the Senate version will be compared and contrasted, and where there are differences, there will be a debate on how to resolve the differences. The conference committee is typically comprised of senior members of the House and Senate Ag Committees.
The big differences in the two versions have to do with SNAP. But also there are differences on conservation initiatives and farm program subsidy caps. The Senate version generally looks and seems the same as the previous farm bill, with reductions in spending that help the bill to fit under the $860 proposed cap.
Why is this important? There are several reasons. As discussed before in this column, nutrition programs like SNAP account for more than 75 percent of the cost of the farm bill. Stated another way, less than 25 percent of the farm bill pertains to programs directly benefiting farmers: crop insurance, conservation and commodity programs. Politics aside, the numbers illustrate how a small tweak to SNAP can account for a large change in the total cost of the farm bill. A 1 percent reduction of the $860 billion budget is still an $8.6 billion reduction. And that is just 1 percent, so tinkering with the numbers is an interesting exercise.
The less than 25 percent of the farm bill pertaining to farmer-oriented programs is a big deal to farmers this year. At my local elevator this morning, spring wheat for harvest delivery is at $4.77 per bushel. Soybeans for harvest delivery are at $7.67 per bushel. Corn is at $2.92 per bushel off the combine this fall. The point is, farmers are going to be hard-pressed to turn a profit this year, which means that farm subsidy triggers are likely to be in play. Stated another way, 2018 is a year that "the safety net" is likely to be needed by regional farmers.
It will be interesting to see how things play out in Washington this summer. The 2018 calendar called for senators to be on recess from Aug. 3 to Labor Day. Before last week, there were reports that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has now called for that recess to be vastly shortened. And that was before the announcement of the newest vacancy on the Supreme Court, created by Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement. Many farmers are hoping the passage of the farm bill remains high on the priority list.