House GOP releases farm bill, kicks off partisan fight

By Marc Heller | 05/17/2024 01:25 PM EDT

Agriculture Chair Glenn Thompson’s draft is angering Democrats on climate and other major policies.

Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) speaks.

House Agriculture Chair Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) will mark up his farm bill next week. Francis Chung/POLITICO

House Agriculture Chair Glenn Thompson on Friday proposed a five-year farm bill that borrows multiple policy ideas from Democrats but sets up clashes on conservation and nutrition programs.

The Pennsylvania Republican said in a statement that the draft bill text released Friday “is the product of extensive feedback from stakeholders and all Members of the House, and is responsive to the needs of farm country through the incorporation of hundreds of bipartisan policies.”

The farm bill authorizes programs throughout the Department of Agriculture and has become a focus for Democrats and environmental groups pursuing farming practices that reduce emissions tied to climate change.


It also provides a financial safety set for farmers, promotes environmental protection and helps rural communities with projects ranging from sewage treatment to high-speed internet.

The measure, set for committee consideration May 23, sticks to priorities Thompson has been laying out for months, including rescinding the Inflation Reduction Act’s focus on climate-smart farming practices and boosting the farm safety net in response to rising costs — and in some cases falling commodity prices — for producers.

As promised in recent weeks, Thompson would move all of the unspent conservation funds from the IRA, totaling perhaps $14 billion, into the farm bill’s conservation programs. Thanks to congressional budgeting rules, that would give the programs a financial boost beyond the term of the farm bill — a general concept shared by Democrats and farm groups.

For one initiative alone, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, annual funding would climb from $2 billion to $3.25 billion, according to committee Republican staff. Farmers use that program to plant cover crops that prevent erosion, to build fences to keep livestock out of streams and to improve grazing practices, among other activities.

By removing the IRA funds’ mandate for climate-smart conservation, aides said the programs would be returned to their tradition of letting states decide which practices to favor.

If Maine — a leader in organic agriculture — chooses to put all of the funding into practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the legislation wouldn’t prevent officials from doing so, a Republican committee aide said.

Democratic opposition

To Democrats, removing the climate-related focus would undercut their biggest victory on climate policy and a hallmark of the Biden administration.

That issue — as well as Thompson’s proposal to revamp aspects of USDA’s low-income nutrition assistance program and restrict the Agriculture secretary’s ability to tap the Commodity Credit Corporation for administration priorities — promise to keep most if not all Democrats on the committee from voting for the bill as proposed.

Ranking member David Scott of Georgia said in a statement: “The discussion draft released by Chairman Thompson today confirms my worst fears: House Republicans plan to pay for the farm bill by taking food out of the mouths of America’s hungry children, restricting farmers from receiving the climate-smart conservation funding they so desperately need, and barring the USDA from providing financial assistance to farmers in times of crisis.”

Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.).
House Agriculture ranking member David Scott (D-Ga.). | Francis Chung/POLITICO

In an acknowledgment of the complicated political picture, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture in a statement praised the draft’s release but didn’t comment on its substance.

“With the release of the legislative text, NASDA remains committed to advocating for a bipartisan farm bill that will secure a commitment to American agriculture and the critical food and nutritional assistance programs for those who need it most,” said CEO Ted McKinney.

The Environmental Defense Fund said backing away from the IRA’s focus on climate change would work to the detriment of agricultural areas feeling the brunt of the warming climate and its mix of flood, drought and other effects.

“The removal of climate-focused funding in these programs is a step backward at a time when we need to be moving forward with greater urgency,” said Andrew Lentz, director of federal affairs for agriculture policy, in a statement.

In others areas, however, Thompson borrowed heavily from bills introduced or co-sponsored by Democrats.

Those include increasing funding for research focused on specialty crops; reauthorizing the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority that funds high-risk research that private industry might not take on alone; and increasing reimbursement rates to farmers who lose crop-producing trees to natural disasters.

Forestry provisions

The forestry title, rarely a controversial part of the farm bill, would ease environmental reviews for certain types of projects on national forests, such as removing trees to create fuel breaks against wildfire.

Other aspects of the forest section have broader support, including expanding wood innovation programs that encourage new uses of trees harvested from national forests.

The bill would also make permanent a timber transport pilot program that USDA designed to ship sawlogs from areas with limited mill capacity to areas that have mills in need of more timber.

That program was conceived to move logs from California to the Black Hills area of Wyoming and South Dakota but could be used more broadly, committee staff said.

House vs. Senate

Thompson’s draft is now the sole legislative text released publicly. Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) released a detailed framework but hasn’t said when legislative text will be forthcoming.

Thompson said in his statement, “The markup is one step in a greater House process, that should not be compromised by misleading arguments, false narratives, or edicts from the Senate.”

Stabenow would also move IRA funding into the farm bill but would maintain the climate focus. She has said her approach would meet farmers’ demands.

Republican aides said Thompson moved closer to the Democratic position by dropping the idea of moving some IRA funding into non-conservation programs such as commodity price supports.

As the bill moves along, policy debates will be shaped as well by fiscal realities. House Agriculture Committee staff said the measure will be budget-neutral, meaning it wouldn’t increase net costs to the government.

But cost estimates are in flux, and Thompson continues to work with the Congressional Budget Office to clear up confusion over the CBO’s long-term projections, which typically cover a 10-year period.

In particular, aides said, Thompson believes he can recover $50 billion or more through what he believes are miscalculations related to USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp. That’s an agency created in 1933 to protect farm income and commodity prices. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s use of the CCC to fund climate-smart agriculture grants has irked congressional Republicans.

The last farm bill, enacted in 2018, expired last Sept. 30, but Congress extended it for one year.