Tax reform and federal budget issues in the final two months of the year will keep the House Agriculture Committee from advancing a farm bill until early next year.
Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, told reporters on a call Wednesday that he expects the farm bill will advance in his committee in January or February, "through early spring, when we get the bill on the floor, hopefully before that."
The chairman noted debate time on the House floor is already booked. "This month is completely full with tax reform," and December will be full dealing with the 2018 budget and completing tax reform.
"I was trying to get it done as early as I could, but as you know there are other things going on on the floor other than the farm bill, even though it's hard to believe -- hard for me to believe -- that anything else would be more important," he said.
For now, the Agriculture Committee is sending various farm-bill proposals with the Congressional Budget Office to come back with cost scores. Conaway added there will likely be various individual proposals for the farm bill floated as individual pieces of legislation by committee members, somewhat as trial balloons to gauge reaction.
The last time the farm bill was done on time was 2002 when Congress had $50 billion more in revenue than the baseline. Conaway noted he does not have any extra resources. That is why further delay on the farm bill in 2018 won't benefit anyone. Conaway said he intends to spend his political capital to get a farm bill done on time, which would mean by the end of September 2018.
"The decisions we'll have to make will be hard. They will not get easier with the passage of time," he said.
Some of the major funding challenges still include a fix to help provide cotton producers some income from the commodity programs and a fix for the safety net for dairy farmers. Conaway said the committee will also have to look at how to change the Agricultural Risk Coverage program because ARC county now "triggers payments that just don't make any sense between contiguous counties. We have got to come to grips with that."
Regarding cotton, Conaway said he understands USDA is looking at repeating a gin cost-share program created under the Obama administration to help cotton farmers. "I think the secretary is in full agreement on this issue."
The big issue is whether the White House Office of Management and Budget would agree to USDA continuing that program. "That would be the near-term step the administration could do, and I fully expect will sometime soon," Conaway said.
Such aid is needed for cotton producers because any change in the farm bill would not start until the 2019 crop year with program payments going out in 2020. "That's a long time from now, obviously. Cotton farmers need something in the meantime, in between."
Conaway also pointed to a request by livestock groups to create a vaccine bank to deal with infectious livestock diseases, in particularly food and mouth disease. The big question is how could such a vaccine bank be funded.
"An outbreak of any size, which is certainly possible at any time, would devastate that particular area and devastate exports," Conaway said.
Overall, Conaway said the array of USDA programs are getting a strong public defense. The Ag Committee held six field hearings over the summer with more than 340 people testifying. Everyone is justifying and making the case why their program needs more funding.
"This is going to shock you but not one of them asked for less money," he said. "Every single one of them wanted more money for their particular area."
The House Ag Committee will also focus "a laser" on policies in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Conaway said the goal is to reset the metrics so people get off SNAP and into positions in the workforce so aid is no longer needed. The SNAP debate will be part of a broader focus in the House next year on welfare reform.
"You'll see next year as well (House Speaker) Paul Ryan still wants to run a broad welfare reform that the SNAP reforms we are talking about will fold into," Conaway said.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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