Washington Insider -- Wednesday

White House Holding Up Second Farm Aid Installment

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Reuters: White House Holding Up Second Farm Aid Installment

Concerns over cost and hopes that the U.S. and China will resolve their trade tensions are behind a delay by the White House in moving ahead with a second round of payments to farmers under the Market Facilitation Program (MFP), according to Reuters.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said he was negotiating with the White House and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on the matter and had expected to announce the second tranche of money late last week or early this week.

USDA spokesman Tim Murtaugh told Reuters that the agency was still in the "final stages" of the process of approving the second tranche of payments.

"We are in discussions with the White House and anticipate that the second payment rates for the Market Facilitation Program will be published before the end of the year," Murtaugh said in a statement.

House Farm Bill Action Awaited

With the Senate clearing the new farm bill on an 87-13 vote Tuesday, action now moves to the House.

The 13 senators voting against the bill, all Republicans, included John Barrasso of Wyoming, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Jon Kyl of Arizona, Mike Lee of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. The Senate cleared its version of the bill in July via an 86-11 vote with three lawmakers not voting.

The House Rules Committee abruptly canceled a session to consider a rule for the measure Tuesday afternoon, but did meet Tuesday evening and approved a rule for the bill on a voice vote.

It sets the stage for the House to vote on the measure Wednesday or possibly Thursday.

President Donald Trump spoke positively about the farm bill in remarks Tuesday at the White House in a contentious meeting with House and Senate Democratic leaders on the budget.

Washington Insider: Farm Bill Conference Report Draft Released

The text of the farm bill conference report was released earlier this week and the Senate, as noted above, has already voted to finalize the bill and a vote is expected in the House by the end of the week.

However, the report raises one modest caution flag. Bloomberg notes that the report likely will not have the support of some conservative lawmakers “because of the limited changes to nutrition program work rules.” The measure would renew ag subsidies, federal crop insurance and food aid for low-income families for five years.

House Ag chair Mike Conaway, R-Texas, and Senate Ag chair Pat Roberts R-Kan., along with the top Democrats on the panels, have been working for weeks to craft a deal for consideration in the lame-duck session. “I’ve made calls all weekend and it looks good,” Conaway said.

The biggest stumbling block in the debate over the bill has been over expanding work requirements for some people who receive food stamps. House Republicans had proposed tougher work requirements for older food stamp recipients and those with older children, while Senate negotiators opposed those changes.

The current draft wouldn’t make any changes to the age limit or work requirements for recipients able to work and without dependents, Bloomberg said. However, it would roll back the proportion of a state’s Supplemental Nutrition Program caseload that would be exempt from current time limits on drawing benefits. The rate for recipients who had otherwise exhausted their eligibility would fall from 15 percent of a state’s caseload to 12 percent.

Another provision in the bill would require governors to sign off on state requests for work requirement waivers in areas where unemployment is high. Currently, able-bodied adults under 50 without dependents are expected to work at least 20 hours a week or be in a training program to obtain benefits. But states can request waivers from those requirements for high-unemployment areas.

A House staff member told Bloomberg that changes proposed for the nutrition programs were seen as “incremental wins” for the administration that lay the groundwork for bigger changes later.

So, it is clear that there is support for continuing the fight over nutrition program rules in the future, perhaps after the current farm bill extension is passed. For example, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said earlier that he’s interested in issuing a proposed rule to make it “still harder” for states to waive work-related rules.

“I think from a regulatory perspective USDA is prepared to tighten up the waiver process, which I believe has been abused,” Perdue told the press earlier this month.

In spite of close scrutiny of the bill by budget hawks and pressure to hold down costs of the draft measure, it does include one new “legal agricultural commodity,” Bloomberg said: industrial hemp. This change came after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., championed the proposal, even joining the farm bill conference committee to ensure it would be incorporated. Among other changes to existing law, industrial hemp will be removed from the federal list of controlled substances and hemp farmers would be able to apply for crop insurance.

Additionally, the conference report draft proposal would reduce to 10 years the “lifetime” ban from working in the hemp industry for people with a drug-related felonies, and it would include an exemption for farmers already growing hemp under existing research authority to allow them to continue their operations.

Bloomberg also noted that the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to set aside land for conservation, would be allowed to grow by three million acres, but would still be capped.

The draft also would preserve the Conservation Stewardship Program which pays farmers to use practices that reduce soil erosion and promote better water quality such as planting cover crops. The House bill had proposed eliminating the program and folding elements of it into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program as stewardship contracts.

This development doesn’t mean the farm bill fights are over, but it does mean that the committee sponsors believe the end-game is near and there is growing pressure to complete work on the current five-year extension during this year’s lame-duck session, and before the House changes hands. Still, even as the bill is likely to pass, it will go down as one of the most contentious farm bill fights, something that could be a factor the next time the omnibus legislation is up for renewal, Washington Insider believes.

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