The House and Senate are preparing to go to conference to draft the final version of the 2018 Farm Bill. Both chambers passed their own versions of the Farm Bill in June and must now nominate a small delegation of lawmakers to reconcile the differences between the two bills. Current funding for Farm Bill programs expires on September 30, 2018. Congress has until then to get a final bill to President Trump’s desk.
The Farm Bill is an omnibus package that encompasses the bulk of agriculture and nutrition policy in the United States. Titles in the Farm Bill cover crop insurance, conservation, farm credit, forestry, trade expansion, technological research, rural development, bioenergy, foreign food aid, and food stamps.
Both the House and Senate recently passed their own versions of the Farm Bill. The House Farm Bill has drawn criticism for its handling of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps. The bill would expand work requirements for SNAP recipients, tighten eligibility requirements for program applicants, and move millions of people off the program. The Republican-backed proposal sparked Democratic opposition that forced House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI-01) to pass the House bill with only Republican votes. This is a departure from past Farm Bills, which are historically bipartisan.
The Senate passed their version of the Farm Bill with 86 votes and overwhelming bipartisan support. Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) managed to uphold the bipartisan tradition of the Farm Bill by drafting legislation that largely preserves the status quo. In particular, Chairman Roberts and Ranking Member Stabenow avoided the changes to SNAP proposed in the House. Instead, the Senate bill takes minor steps to reform SNAP to reduce fraud, waste, and abuse. The Senate bill would strengthen SNAP oversight to minimize the program error that was found in a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
When the two chambers go to conference, negotiators will aim to strike a compromise on the House Farm Bill’s controversial SNAP proposals. House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX-11) is optimistic the appointed conferees can negotiate a final bill before funding expires on September 30, but recent history suggests the talks could last for several months. When Congress conferenced the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills, the negotiations lasted for more than half a year.
There is mounting pressure on Congress to pass a Farm Bill against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s trade war with China. U.S. farmers will bear the brunt of China’s retaliatory tariffs, and an industry that is already struggling will grow more desperate for the federal assistance programs provided in the Farm Bill.