Finding dollars key to farm bill passage

Cotton crop. (Courtesy photo.)

After nearly three weeks without a speaker, Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives finally voted to elect Rep. Mike Johnson from Louisiana. He isn’t well known in farm country, or by most of the rest of the nation for that matter. 

But Rep. Frank Lucas, a former chairman of the House Ag Committee, says Johnson is a likable, low-key conservative who should be able to unite House Republicans. 

Sara Wyant
Sara Wyant

“I think he can pull us together. He’s a real conservative, so we’re back on track. We’re headed forward again, I think,” Lucas, R-OK, said in an interview with Agri-Pulse Newsmakers

Farm state lawmakers were pleased to see Johnson reference a new farm bill as he laid out his new and ambitious agenda. In a letter to colleagues, Johnson says the House should pass the farm bill in December “and await Senate action. Begin negotiations as soon as possible.” 

Some 61 House Republicans, in congratulating the new speaker on his win, sent a letter to Johnson urging “swift passage” of a new farm bill. They noted that “more than 92% of our nation’s planted acres are represented by Republican members. Moreover, in 2022, the food and agriculture sectors contributed $7.4 trillion in economic activity, creating 43 million jobs, $2.3 trillion in wages, $718 billion in tax revenue, and $183 billion in exports, stemming from direct, indirect, and induced output.”  

But Johnson still faces strong headwinds from many factions of his party who want to make substantial cuts in federal spending, including in parts of the farm bill. At the same time, farm groups are lobbying members to increase spending—at least on the farmer-focused portions of any new legislation.   

Finding “new” funds for any farm bill has historically been a challenge. So it was a bit of a surprise when Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow said she expects to have $4 billion to $5 billion in new funding available to address issues with commodity programs and expand crop insurance options.  

Her priorities include expanding a highly subsidized crop insurance product that’s now limited to cotton growers, and she said she’s open to addressing concerns that Price Loss Coverage reference prices aren’t high enough to account for recent increases in input costs. 

The Michigan Democrat didn’t identify the source of the extra funding but said she had worked with Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-NY, to find money from outside the farm bill. Earlier in the afternoon, she had alluded to the extra funding during a comprehensive farm bill speech on the Senate floor.  

Stabenow also said Congress would need to pass a year-long extension of the 2018 farm bill in November or December, echoing comments made just a few days earlier by Sen. John Boozman, the ranking Republican from Arkansas. 

Stabenow, who said the upcoming farm bill would be her sixth in Congress, also rejected the idea of imposing new restrictions on future U.S. Department of Agriculture updates of the Thrifty Food Plan, the economic model used to determine Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. Republicans would like to use such restrictions to generate savings that could be moved elsewhere in the farm bill.  

Stabenow said the year-long extension would include funding for several programs that didn’t have funding beyond Sept. 30, including the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research.  

However, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-PA, has said a one-year extension is too long.  

Stabenow acknowledged that passing shorter extensions would keep more pressure on Congress to finish a new farm bill. But, she said, “USDA tells us that as a practical matter, it has to be a year because of the way that commodity programs work.”  

As for addressing the major row crop commodity programs, Stabenow said an across-the-board increase in reference prices is out of the question because of the price tag. She didn’t rule out modifying an escalator that allows reference prices to rise when market prices have risen sharply in recent years.  

But she noted that existing reference prices are higher for some crops than others in relation to market prices, and she also expressed concern that raising reference price rates will wind up raising farmland rent. 

Raising PLC reference prices is a top priority for Thompson and Senate Ag’s Boozman. 

For his part, Boozman, says he doesn’t know whether the extra money Stabenow has identified for the next farm bill will be enough to bolster commodity programs and crop insurance. 

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Boozman and his House ag counterparts continue to wait on cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office on possible program modifications. 

Editor’s note: Sara Wyant is publisher of Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.,