A battle that ties food aid for needy families with crop subsidies for American farmers may stall efforts to renew a sweeping agricultural policy law, forcing Congress to consider delaying action on the $1.5 trillion proposal until after this fall’s elections.

The law, known as the farm bill, is set to expire Sept. 30. It typically draws bipartisan support because it combines resources for such programs as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for low-income families with updates to farm supports, including commodity price guarantees and crop insurance.

This year, however, the Republican-controlled House is writing a version of the bill that would spend less on future low-income food assistance and more on large-scale commodity farmers, while the Democratic-controlled Senate is mulling a proposal to do the opposite.

Lawmakers say the probable outcome is a stalemate that would force a temporary extension of existing policies. That would benefit Democrats and their allies by preserving the higher nutrition benefits in current law. But it would mostly leave commodity assistance unchanged, frustrating Republicans and their allies in the agricultural community.

“The world today is drastically different than it was when the current law was put into place,” said Sam Kieffer, vice president of public policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

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The farm bill is supposed to be renewed every five years. But the last one was written in 2018, before the coronavirus pandemic caused historic inflation and snarled supply chains; before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, one of the world’s largest agricultural producers; before the cost per acre of U.S. farmland skyrocketed; and before President Biden and Democrats passed first-of-its-kind climate policy that weighs heavily on agriculture.

Congress must pass some sort of agriculture and nutrition legislation before the current law expires or face massive upheaval in agricultural commodities and dairy markets. Leaders in both parties said a temporary extension of current law is looking increasingly likely.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told The Washington Post that continuing the 2018 version of the law temporarily might prove the easiest option to steer through Congress, saying, “I’m not going to support a bad bill.”

The committee’s top Republican, Sen. John Boozman (Ark.), agreed: “If we don’t make meaningful improvements, if we don’t put more farm in the farm bill, we’re better off not having a new farm bill.”

Lawmakers are already discussing a brief extension that would push a vote on a longer-term measure into the “lame duck” session after the November election and before the new Congress takes office in January. Lawmakers also have discussed another year-long farm bill extension; Congress passed similar legislation in November, which is why the 2018 law is still on the books now.

“A lot of people forget why we need a five-year farm bill, why it’s so necessary to balance fiscal responsibility reform with anticipatory policy and why the legislation we pass today ought to reflect the needs of agriculture producers and consumers. It’s because farm bills are felt in every corner of America, in every field and pasture, in every grocery story and agribusiness. The legislation we pass today will have ripple effects for years to come,” Rep. Tracey Mann (R-Kan.) said at a House Agriculture Committee meeting in late May.

The 2018 farm bill authorized the administration to reevaluate the formula used to calculate food assistance, which Biden leveraged in 2021 to approve the largest-ever increase in SNAP benefits. The 2018 bill also guaranteed minimum prices for certain agriculture products — promising that the government would pay the difference between the market price and what are known as “reference prices.” But those levels haven’t changed despite the subsequent upheaval in global markets and rising inflation.

That means producers have struggled without as much help as Congress may have envisioned, Kieffer said.

Republicans are trying to push those levels up. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) advanced legislation in late May that would pour billions of dollars into raising the price floors for agricultural commodities by as much as 20 percent.

Soybeans, which in April traded at $11.80 a bushel, according to the Agriculture Department, would have a guaranteed price of $10 under the legislation, up from $8.40. Wheat in April traded at $5.91 a bushel and would have a $6.35 price floor, up from $5.50.

“Over the past few decades, the farm safety net has lost its ability to protect those who are the backbone of our great nation,” Thompson said at the May 23 committee meeting. “American farmers face natural disasters, take huge personal risk and are at the whims of regulatory overreach. It is a privilege to deliver a farm bill that strengthens the risk-mitigation measures available to producers, providing certainty in a time of volatility.”

The GOP bill would pay for those increases by limiting the White House’s authority to increase SNAP benefits, which would cost recipients nearly $30 billion in enhanced food assistance over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Nearly 42 million people a month use the program, which is designed to cover about two-thirds of a household’s monthly food expenses. A household of four people can receive maximum monthly benefits of $973 in most states.

Limiting benefit increases is a nonstarter for Democrats, who have united against Thompson’s bill on both sides of the Capitol.

“I want a farm bill; it’s just that I’m not going to have my legacy going backward,” said Stabenow, who is retiring in 2025 after nearly three decades in Congress.

Other issues that divide the parties are negotiable, lawmakers said.

Biden’s 2022 Inflation Reduction Act set aside almost $20 billion to pay agricultural producers or landowners to enact “climate smart” conservation practices. The program has been wildly popular and oversubscribed, and Thompson’s bill would remove the climate guardrails from that funding to allow producers easier access to conservation funds.

Democrats have balked at that idea but said there is room to compromise; the vast majority of the most popular conservation practices that farmers employed even before the Biden administration’s incentives kicked in are already considered “climate smart,” said Michael Happ, who studies climate and rural communities at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

While GOP proposals on price floors have caused an uproar among Democrats, Thompson’s bill otherwise aims for bipartisan agreement: The legislation is loaded with Democratic proposals to try to preserve the political alliance that has traditionally propelled farm bills. One provision would require new administrative procedures to help young farmers acquire land. Average farm real estate values have increased more than 30 percent since 2018, according to the Agriculture Department.

Thompson’s bill also would allow individuals with felony drug convictions to receive SNAP benefits after completing their sentences, a longtime Democratic priority.



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