Left and right unite in panning House Republicans’ farm bill proposal

Left and right unite in panning House Republicans’ farm bill proposal

House Republicans’ new farm bill proposal is drawing opposition from a coalition of left- and right-wing groups that agree on little else.

The proposed version of the $1.5 trillion omnibus unveiled last week by House Agriculture Committee Chair Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) includes several priorities of big agribusiness — proposals that frustrated both right-aligned groups such as the Heritage Foundation and left-leaning ones including the Environmental Working Group amid progressives’ and populists’ broader dislike of what they see as crony capitalism at the U.S. farmstand.

The bill faces a tough road in the House, where Republicans hold only a narrow majority and both Democrats and some GOP lawmakers have pushed back against provisions included in the proposal.

As it goes to markup this week, several key areas of shared left-right opposition will be front and center.

The principal bone of contention is that Thompson’s proposed legislation contains tens of billions of dollars in subsidies that would overwhelmingly go to a few thousand of America’s wealthiest cotton, rice and peanut farmers — money that would likely come from either climate funding or food aid.

Heritage and Environmental Working Group (EWG) “may not agree on much, but we agree that farmers are sophisticated business leaders who should make their money in the market — not by becoming more dependent on federal support,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s vice president for government affairs.

“We agree that we need a farm safety net,” Faber added. “But what Chairman Thompson has proposed is more akin to a trampoline.”

The right and left have very different visions of the food system, which drive different ideas of why Thompson’s compromise is a problem.

For left-leaning groups and lawmakers — whose viewpoints hold a powerful sway in the Democratic-controlled Senate — cuts to food aid and climate funding are clear red lines, though such groups offered grudging support for House measures to increase resources for young or minority farmers or land grant universities.

To the right, including the House Freedom Caucus, cuts in general would be attractive in an era of rising deficits — but Heritage characterized Thompson’s proposal as an attempt to smuggle in permanent subsidy increases to America’s wealthiest farmers through the back door.

“There’s a reason you’re seeing so many groups from across the ideological spectrum in opposition — there’s not an economic justification for it,” David Ditch, a senior policy analyst at Heritage, told The Hill.

Increasing subsidies, Ditch added, would be understandable “if farmers were going bankrupt left and right.”

But while prices of farm supplies are going up, commodity prices have increased more. “It’s a distortion of markets,” he said of the proposed increases.

Rather than providing aid for farmers on the margins, he said, “this is like locking in historically high revenue levels for farming operations that are very financially stable, and who have access to credit markets for when times are tough — operated by households with dramatically above average income and wealth.”

Of particular concern to both left- and right-wing opponents of the bill is the increase to what are called “reference prices,” a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that pays farmers when commodity prices drop below a certain level.

The higher that level is set, the higher the potential payment from the program, and the greater the likelihood that farmers will get it.

The increase to reference prices for the three chosen commodities — rice, peanuts and cotton — under the new House proposal mean that farmers of those crops would get automatic payments for each of the five years a new farm bill would be in effect, because levels would be set so high that farmers would get payments no matter what, according to an EWG report.

EWG also found that between 2021 and 2023, thousands of farmers had “triple-dipped” by using distinct federal programs to cover the same drop in prices — amounting to a total cost to taxpayers of $55.2 billion.

The bill would also increase subsidies for insurance for farmers of major commodities, such as corn and wheat — programs the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found pay America’s wealthiest farmers about $2 for every dollar they put in.

In a November report, the GAO suggested saving billions by cutting that proportion to more like $1.59 to $1 — a proposal Thompson called “not worth the paper it is printed on.”

The office, he said, “completely ignores the benefits of Federal crop insurance, which is one of the most successful examples of a public-private partnership in existence.”

The programs, he added, “bolster rural economies by ensuring that producers can pay back their lenders, retain their employees, and get back on their feet to farm again the following season.”

Rather than cutting support, Thompson’s bill would raise coverage levels, increase the federal share of premiums and lower the amount of losses needed for farmers to claim a payment.

The issue of payment is another place where right and left both see problems — on one side, because of the increase in spending, and on the other, because of what would be cut to cover it.

Because the farm bill’s total is capped, Thompson would need more than $90 billion in cuts to cover the proposed price tag and crop insurance increases, according to trade journal Dairy Herd Management.

Thompson told Agri-Pulse that cuts to the Commodity Credit Corporation — which makes loans according to administration priorities like trade or climate change — would net $53 billion; the Congressional Budget Office, however, says that number is more like $8 billion.

Part of the projected shortfall would be made up by freezing the list of foods covered by nutritional aid programs — a change Thompson has said would cut $30 billion from farm bill spending over the next decade.

Some of the rest of the shortfall could be made up by cuts and creative reallocations to the approximately $19 billion in funding for agricultural programs to slow the onslaught of climate change, Ditch of the Heritage Foundation said.

“If we go down the line, those reference prices are still going to be higher level, but won’t have [Inflation Reduction Act] money to use as an offset,” he said.

That last bargain is unattractive for conservatives, because it would use a one-time package to pay for an increase in reference prices and crop insurance that is functionally permanent, Ditch said.

He also noted that it would also violate a clear red line for Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “I’m very skeptical that the Senate is interested in that particular tradeoff.”

Progressive farm groups such as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) have argued that the existing structure of “safety net programs” like crop insurance and reference prices effectively protect unsustainable forms of agriculture from the need to adopt a more resilient, diversified approach — at taxpayer expense.

Though NSAC acknowledges that Thompson’s bill would also add support and subsidies to help smaller and more diversified farms access insurance — a longtime demand of farm groups — the group argues that it would do little to actually bring such aid to fruition.

While the proposed legislation would require studies of challenges that small producers face, for instance, the NSAC said “those barriers and corresponding solutions are already well documented” in similar studies ordered in the last farm bill.

Another point of shared opposition from left and right comes in a perhaps surprising area: animal welfare.

As of January, California has banned the sale of pigs, chickens or veal calves kept in “extreme confinement” — which generally means cages that offer too little space for animals to move.

The law is a serious concern for Republicans from states with big pork industries, which would not be able to sell in California without major, expensive reform.

Last June, Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa) sponsored H.R. 4417, which would ban states from setting their own standards on what out-of-state produce can be sold locally.

The California law, Hinson said, “allows liberal lawmakers and radical activists in California — who don’t know the first thing about farming or raising animals — to regulate how farmers do their job, devastating small family farms and undermining food security.”

But this argument is divisive among Republicans — in particular the influential House Freedom Caucus — many of whom have expressed more concern over the prospect of Congress regulating state agricultural policy than of states setting their own standards.

In letters in October and March, about two dozen House Republicans urged Thompson to drop H.R. 4417, which they argued was “at odds with our foundational Republican principles of states’ rights, national sovereignty, and fair competition.”

The group included notable GOP Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Marjorie Taylor Green (Ga.) and Nancy Mace (S.C.).

The California bill’s constitutionality, the letter writers noted, had been upheld by the Supreme Court — and the attack on it, they argued, largely came from big agribusiness abroad.

“The Act proposes to undo legitimate statewide elections on animal-housing standards, and the influence of the Chinese government is hard to miss given the profound level of control of pig production in the United States,” they wrote.

“The biggest U.S.-based pork company is wholly owned by the Chinese, controlling 26 percent of the U.S. pork market, and produces one in six breeding sows in the United States.”

Earlier this month, Sid Miller (R), Texas’s highly conservative agriculture commissioner, cast his support behind California on the matter. “Our states must be able to maintain their constitutional authority to pass agriculture laws … and DC should never ride roughshod over states’ rights to do so,” he wrote in an op-ed in Agri-Pulse.

A final area of common left-right opposition to the proposed farm bill is the checkoff program, which takes a mandatory fee from the sale of covered commodities — like milk or beef — and funnels it into public-private programs intended to promote the sale of that commodity.

For the last year, conservative Republicans and right-leaning groups have joined progressive lawmakers and groups in seeking to end what they call rampant conflict of interest and anticompetitive activity in the program, as The Hill reported.

Last February, Mace introduced the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act (OFF Act), which would ban the programs from working for specific interest groups or lobbyists in their sector — in practice, big agriculture trade groups — whose priorities might be at odds with the sector as a whole, or smaller players.

The House’s latest proposed version of the farm bill leaves the OFF Act out.

Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee, for their part, sharply criticized the legislation Tuesday and forecast a coming battle over the farm bill that could extend beyond the current proposal.

“House Republicans have spent over a year ignoring the red lines and core values of House Democrats,” Britton T. Burdick, communications director for House Agriculture Democrats, said in a statement.

“The Republicans have lost credibility, which will only make it harder to convince Democrats to support a farm bill down the road. Farmers know that the only way we get a farm bill this year is if Republicans and Democrats work together and respect each other’s priorities. House Republicans should drop their partisan approach and work with Democrats to pass a truly bipartisan farm bill.”

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