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Conaway committed to finishing farm bill, says multiple issues remain unresolved

Also offers praise for USDA ag trade aid package, Secretary Perdue

This article is powered by Issue Monitor

Multiple issues, not just differences on new work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients, remain to be worked out between the House and Senate-passed versions of the farm bill, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said in an interview with IEG Policy and another reporter.

"I've got a countdown clock," Conaway said, referring to the time left before the end of the month when the current farm bill lapses. As to the issues still to be worked out in the House-Senate farm bill conference committee, he noted, "People may say it's just SNAP, it is not, it's legitimate farm bill issues," beyond just the nutrition title.

Conaway focused on getting farm bill done this month

Asked about his thoughts on recent remarks by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) that Congress could wait until after the election, in December, to iron out a final bill, Conaway replied, "I couldn't disagree more," adding, "I don't want to talk about anything other than getting this done" by Sept. 30.

Meanwhile, Conaway weighed in on recent remarks by President Donald Trump, accusing Stabenow of delaying the bill. In a tweet last week, Trump said: "Senator Debbie Stabenow and the Democrats are totally against approving the Farm Bill. They are fighting tooth and nail to not allow our Great Farmers to get what they so richly deserve. Work requirements are imperative, and the Dems are a NO. Not good!"

"I've asked [Trump] to help where he can, asking for support on the farm bill and SNAP and you kind of saw that in his tweets that he's backing our play," Conaway said, adding "that helps kind of offset the fact that I had only Republicans in the House vote for the bill."

House, Senate working to improve Title I for final bill

Besides SNAP, Conaway suggested some changes in the initial Senate bill, in his view, would negatively impact farm safety-net programs. "The Senate bill does harm to Title I," he remarked, referring to the section of their bill that covers commodity programs.

"We’re working with the Senate for a better Title I program even than the one I brought forward in the House farm bill," he said, noting the goal is a stronger overall bill, which he called a "must" given the decline of farm income in recent years.

On a somber note, Conaway pointed to rising suicides and farm bankruptcies among farm families as evidence of the real hardship many are facing and as a strong motivator for ensuring the final bill's safety net provides adequate support for struggling operators.

Policy should drive farm bill changes, not funding

A point Conaway repeatedly emphasized was that within and between different farm bill titles, policy decisions should come first, following by a funding discussion and not the other way around. "This idea that you under no circumstances can take money out of one title to put it another is wrongheaded," he observed.

On how the House bill allocates funding across different titles of the bill, he noted, besides the nutrition title, Ag committee Democrats and Republicans had worked together to come to the final language and that even after Democrats disengaged over the SNAP work requirements "I didn't change anything." He added House Ag Committee Ranking Member Colin Peterson (D-Minn.) can defend the non-SNAP portions of the bill "because he and I did that together."

One example cited was agreement on the House side that the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) "needs to be phased out," with its funding redirected to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). He also noted that boosting maximum CRP acres would be paid for by "adjusting rental rates."

Final farm bill needs majority Republican support in House to advance

Regarding whether a farm bill that lacked the support of majority of Republicans could be brought to the floor – which would violate the so-called "Hastert rule" – Conaway was emphatic that such a bill would not be brought up. Still, he was hopeful that changes agreed to by Democratic leaders would allow a final bill to "get some [Democratic] votes in the House," saying that would be "fantastic" and that "this should not be a partisan bill."

Even if the bill were delayed until after a new Congress is seated and if Democrats were to gain control of the House, Conaway said hard work would still need to be done noting House Democrats would "hold fast to what they believed in this process" when crafting the bill.

He also expressed some frustration with Democratic opposition to the SNAP work requirement changes included in the House bill. For years, he said members have said let's not "talk about money let's talk about policy… what should the policy look like, then let's find the very best policy we can." He asserted House Republicans had done just that, and that to top things off, the changes came in spending neutral, expressing exasperation that Democratic opposition has been so strong.

Bipartisan opposition to farm program income eligibility changes cited

Changes to farm program income eligibility requirements, namely an amendment pushed by Sen. Chuck  Grassley (R-Iowa), are a non-starter, Conaway observed. "There is bipartisan opposition," to the amendment, he said, adding, "Collin and I are vehemently against hurting Title I people by the actively engaged stuff Grassley wants to do or the AGI (Adjusted Gross Income) change. Both would hurt farmers and it's the wrong time to do it. It was in both farm bills the last time but it didn't make the final cut and that was better financial times for production agriculture. Now it's 180 degrees the other direction. Now is not the time to hurt people with changing the rules. Bankruptcies are up 39%."

He gave low odds to any US dairy supply management system. "I just don't think that the system is ready to try that. Collin (Peterson) and I are trying to improve existing programs and we've got some dairy producers in Congress that are actually trying to live this wreck that is dairy," he remarked.

He also acknowledged Canada's policies have been a hindrance to ongoing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA 2.0) talks. "One of the pieces with a trade deal with Canada may be that Class 7 milk wreck that that has caused a lot of problems. We are not going to necessarily deal with Canada's supply management program, but I think they can try to get as a part of that (NAFTA 2.0) negotiation relief for Class 7. That's one of the pieces that I think Canada's got to put on the table: the impact that they've had and its impact on US dairy markets."

Praise offered for USDA's ag trade aid plan

Meanwhile, he also remarked that the Trump administration is doing its best to mitigate the collateral damage trade turmoil is having on US agriculture. "I'm proud of [Trump] that through USDA he announced the Market Facilitation Program for certain crops and there may be another round of that in the future," he observed, adding, the president “will not let the Chinese use US agriculture as a weapon against America in the negotiating positions."

In response to concerns that USDA's use of the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) in the trade aid package could lead to it being used as a vehicle for additional farm spending, he replied "There's always an issue when the CCC gets used. I had my input to the Secretary (Perdue) on how the program should be implemented. He went a different direction. That's his call and I back his play. He's doing a terrific job... it's a hard job." Conaway did not elaborate on what approach he favored, but said he believes Perdue "thoughtfully considered what I said and decided to go another direction. That's his job. He's doing a terrific job," adding, "I don't ever second-guess him."

Further, Conaway emphasized, "CCC should not be used for an ad hoc disaster bill. That's the main reason we have a farm bill."

Overall, on the farm bill, Conaway's comments suggest conferees are farther from a deal than some observers thought. Notable, were remarks that SNAP issues are just one piece of the disagreements that remain.

His continued support for President Trump's trade strategy was clear and he also signaled strong support for the trade aid package put forward by USDA Secretary Perdue.

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