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House Passes Slimmed-down Version of Farm Bill

The House of Representatives passed a scaled-back version of the farm bill Thursday on a narrow, largely party-line vote of 216 to 208. This legislation does not include a nutrition title, which is the portion of the bill that traditionally addresses food stamps and other assistance programs. Other agricultural titles, however, are unchanged from the version of the bill that failed to pass the House last month.

The decision to drop nutrition programs from the House farm bill is a dramatic departure from the legislative approach that has been in place since the 1960s. By combining traditional agricultural programs with nutrition programs, farm bills over the past fifty years have received bipartisan support from members of Congress representing both rural and urban constituencies. Requiring agriculture programs to stand alone is a troubling prospect for rural interests, which account for a smaller and smaller share of the nation’s population. This explains why the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union and a number of other farm groups opposed the House leadership’s decision to move forward with a bill that did not include a nutrition title.

Some are asking whether this latest move by the House really increases the chances that a farm bill will be in place by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. On the one hand, the House vote should clear the way for the formation of a conference committee in which House and Senate members can try to reach a compromise – and that wasn’t possible unless the House passed a bill in some form. On the other hand, if the Senate agrees to go to conference with a House bill that does not include a nutrition title, it still could prove impossible to reach a compromise on a final version of a bill that can pass both houses of Congress. A compromise will require writing the nutrition title back into the bill to satisfy the Democratic majority in the Senate, then striking the right balance of spending cuts in nutrition programs to win majority support in the House without losing Senate support.

Key trade provisions receive strong support, but where do they go from here?
On a positive note, both the Senate and House versions of the farm bill would continue the current levels of funding for the USDA Market Access Program (MAP) and Foreign Market Development (FMD) program. USMEF greatly appreciates the outreach efforts from our member organizations that helped build strong, bipartisan support for these important programs. Both versions of the bill would also create a new USDA under secretary for trade.

In addition, the House version of the bill includes placeholder language regarding country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for meat products. This provision was inserted in order to create a legislative option for resolving the dispute with Canada and Mexico over the U.S. statutory requirements for COOL.

Full funding for MAP and FMD, as well as the inclusion of these other important provisions, show a strong commitment from Congress to enhance export opportunities for U.S. products, and an appreciation for the benefits agricultural exports deliver for the U.S. economy and our overall balance of trade. But at the same time, this week’s action in the House raises difficult questions about future support for all agricultural programs and what the farm policy-making process will look like going forward.