What Happens in the Next 26 Days Could Change Our Food and Farm Future

September 4, 2018
Andy Ciordia/Flickr
Karen Perry Stillerman
Sr. Strategist and Sr. Analyst, Food & Environment Program

It feels like I’ve been thinking about the 2018 farm bill forever, but we may have finally reached the beginning of the end. Tomorrow, an unusually large group of 56 (!) negotiators from the House and Senate are expected to shoehorn themselves into a room on Capitol Hill to begin the formal process of reconciling two very different visions of our food and farm system.

What happens next will either help small and midsize farmers thrive, put more healthy food on the dinner tables of our most vulnerable neighbors, and invest in farming practices that prevent water pollution and build healthy soil for the future…or not. There’s also an unfortunate third option, in which the farm bill process fails completely, leaving farmers and eaters in limbo.

But first, let’s review where we are, because this day has been a long time coming. As always, there have been ups and downs in the process of crafting a new farm bill, but this time the resulting bills passed in the House and Senate are particularly far apart on several crucial issues.

Two houses of Congress, two very different visions

The divisive House bill’s attack on the SNAP program (formerly food stamps) would be a disaster for millions of people in this country who struggle  to put food on the table—despite a strong economy, and even if they have a job. The House bill also cuts conservation incentives for farmers, completely eliminating the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the USDA’s biggest and most comprehensive initiative that helps farmers take steps to protect their soil and prevent water pollution. The House bill even throws endangered species under the bus as a gift to the pesticide industry.

Contrast all that with the Senate bill, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. That bill protects and improves SNAP and includes funding for innovative programs that connect farmers with local consumers, expanding farming opportunities, enabling more people to afford nutritious food, and keeping food dollars in communities. Moreover, the Senate bill maintains CSP and improves the program in a way that would really pay off—returning $1.2 billion in net benefits to farmers and taxpayers (compared to the House bill’s CSP net loss of $4.7 billion in benefits).

More wonky details about the differences between the House and Senate farm bills can be found here and here.

Can negotiations bridge stark farm bill differences?

Leaders of the congressional agriculture committees (including the Senate committee’s chairman and the House committee’s ranking member) keep issuing statements reassuring farmers that the process is on track. But there are signs that negotiations will be very difficult, and as reported last week, hardliners bent on gutting SNAP are vowing not to budge, leaving little room for compromise.

It remains to be seen whether negotiators will come to some agreement before the current farm bill expires on September 30. But with every day that passes, that outcome seems less likely.

So what happens if they don’t beat the clock? Well, there are a couple of scenarios.

Scenario #1, A Farm Bill Fumble: If the House and Senate fail to pass an identical bill before the end of this month, or if the president decides he doesn’t like the bill they pass and refuses to sign it (a thing that could happen), Congress could vote to extend the current legislation for some period of time. That could be a week, a month, or even a year, depending on whether they just need a little more time to negotiate a sticky detail, or rather they want to kick the can to the next Congress.

Regardless of the extension’s duration, legislators would need to vote specifically to continue funding certain programs, due to a quirk in the legislative process (more on that below). And then the whole new-farm-bill-writing process would start over with a new Congress in 2019.

Scenario #2, A Total Farm Bill Fail: But if Congress fails to pass a new bill this month and they fail to pass an extension keeping money flowing to key programs, that’s when bad things happen. In this situation—let’s call it a TFBF for short—money would immediately dry up for a variety of programs that lack so-called baseline funding. These are programs that farmers, rural communities, and low-income consumers depend upon, and they include:

The Congressional Research Service has a good explanation of farm bill “baseline” funding, with a full listing of programs that don’t have it and would thus be stranded without a new farm bill or an extension of the current one.

While Congress negotiates, we need to keep the pressure on

Let’s assume for the moment that Congress manages to avoid a TFBF at the end of this month. In that case, the entire Congress will need to vote on something—either a new farm bill or an extension of current law. So even for the majority of representatives and senators that won’t be actively negotiating over the next couple of weeks, the farm bill is a thing they need to be thinking about.

You can help keep the pressure up by contacting your representatives and senators. Urge them to reject any farm bill that undercuts SNAP, fails to include local food programs, or eliminates CSP—send an email today.