Farm Bill 2018 -- Where Are We Going Post-Midterms?

by Laurie Ristino

November 16, 2018

The midterm elections are over, and most of the races have been decided. The outcome will have consequences for a wide variety of policies and legislation, including the 2018 Farm Bill. So what's the status of the bill? What are its prospects for passage during what remains of the 115th Congress? And how will the current and near-future political landscape impact the legislation's conservation provisions?

To answer these questions and more, I moderated a recent Center for Progressive Reform webinar with Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Caroline Kitchens of the R Street Institute, and Alix Murdoch of American Forests. While we all agreed that it's encouraging that the House and Senate conference committee is still working on the legislation, the discouraging news is that much remains to be resolved in the jam-packed lame-duck session.

Some of the major differences between the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill involve its conservation title. Designed to help America's farmers prevent erosion, protect wetlands and endangered species, and integrate conservation best practices in their day-to-day operations, the conservation title has suffered from inadequate resources for years, most notably after Congress slashed funding in the 2014 Farm Bill.

While both the House and Senate versions shuffle money among various conservation programs, the House bill does a lot more damage by eliminating a major conservation program, the Conservation Stewardship Program. The House version also contains a pile of anti-environmental riders that would, among other things, make it next to impossible for local governments to restrict the use of highly toxic pesticides if the federal EPA allows their use; allow operators to directly spray pesticides on our lakes, rivers, and streams without violating the Clean Water Act; repeal the Clean Water Rule; and undermine endangered species protections.

The House and Senate bills both have provisions on monitoring and evaluation that will help improve future implementation of conservation programs and crop insurance, respectively. Despite the substantial investments the public has made in these programs over the years, we still do not have robust data on what's working and what needs improvement. Our panelists were hopeful that the conference committee will negotiate improvements on this front – these are common-sense ideas that enjoy support across the political spectrum.

The sense of urgency around the Farm Bill has only grown since the end of the midterms. If Congress fails to reauthorize the law by January 1, 2019, it could cause a significant lack of clarity around Department of Agriculture (USDA) authorities and the ability of staff to make payments under a wide range of Farm Bill programs. The resulting harm, especially to beginning farmers and America's remaining family farms, could lead to a loss of trust in USDA programs and staff, as well as the Farm Bill itself.

This is not to say that Congress should agree to damaging policy provisions or blanket funding cuts just for the sake of passage. The House bill contains serious flaws, and all of the panelists on the webinar concluded that the Senate bill, with improvements to various conservation and data gathering provisions, is the stronger version. Negotiations could take longer than the few days that conferees have left to finalize agreements and still have time to make it onto the House and Senate calendars before the 115th Congress comes to a close.

Panelists all noted that a likely scenario is that Congress will pass a limited, one-year extension of the current law and punt full Farm Bill reauthorization into 2019. If that happens, panelists projected that the new House and Senate versions, although taking time to craft given personnel changes, would likely be in much closer agreement and probably look a lot like the current Senate bill. This, of course, will depend on leadership on the House Agriculture and Rules committees, and how they ultimately shape the debate on the House floor.

No matter which path Congress chooses, one thing is clear: Cutting conservation, whether funding or entire programs, is not the answer for passing this or any Farm Bill reauthorization. Rather, legislators need to look for ways to strengthen conservation programs, ensure USDA has adequate resources to implement the law, examine ways that other sections of the Farm Bill can enhance the effectiveness of the conservation title, and get serious about empowering USDA to gather meaningful data and assess the effectiveness of the Farm Bill's conservation programs.

You can watch and listen to a recording of the webinar below.

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Laurie Ristino is Principal and Founder of Strategies for a Sustainable Future. She is a legal and policy expert on food security, the farm bill conservation title, ecosystem services and private lands conservation.

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