Late this week, the Senate voted 86-11 to pass the 2018 Farm Bill. The Senate bill largely preserves existing Farm Bill programs and avoids reforms to food stamp programs that created controversy for the House version of the bill. An 86-11 vote suggests overwhelming support for a bill that would provide substantial investment in rural America, but next the Senate and House must conference to reconcile substantial differences between the two bills.
The House passed its version of the bill last week by a narrow 213-211 vote despite opposition from Democrats and conservatives. The House version of the bill expands work requirements and makes other changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps. The changes to SNAP in the House version prevented any Democrats from supporting a bill that is historically bipartisan. Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas), John Kennedy (R-Louisiana), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) attempted to add tougher SNAP language in the Senate version but were rejected in a 30-68 vote. The House and Senate versions of the bill have vastly different language in SNAP, as well as the energy, conservation, and farm subsidy sections of the bill.
Before the Senate version of the bill passed, the Senate adopted several amendments to the bill that would impact rural America:
- Collins 3160 would authorize the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief to find efficiencies in the operations of the forest inventory and analysis program required by the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Research Act of 1978. The proposal authorizes the USFS to use innovative remote sensing technologies to provide estimates for state and national levels of inventory on federal land, and to partner with States and other stakeholders where necessary.
- Moran 3159 contains language that would amend the Agricultural Credit Act to provide disaster relief for farmers, ranchers, and producers with disaster relief from wildfire damage.
- Gillibrand 3154 would authorize the Secretary of Agriculture to make loans and loan guarantees to finance community facilities for business innovation services, incubators, and rural entrepreneur centers. This proposal seeks to invest in rural innovators that will drive economic development in the future.
- Enzi 3181 would amend the Rural Energy for America Program under the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002. The Enzi amendment would set annual funding for the Rural Energy for America Program at $50,000,000. This would be a $30,000,000 increase above enacted levels.
- A proposal backed by Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota) would revamp the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and provide more flexibility for farmers on land enrolled in the CRP.
The base version of the Senate Farm Bill preserves or expands existing rural development programs that are critical for economic growth in rural counties. Specifically, the Senate version expands investment and financing for rural broadband deployment. The bill amends the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 to authorize the Community Connect Grant program at $50,000,000. The bill amends the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 to insert a carve-out for Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant funding.
Under the Forestry Title, the Senate Farm Bill would establish a competitive grant program for financial and technical assistance to encourage collaborative, science-based restoration of priority forest landscapes. The grant program would exist as part of the “State and Private Forest Landscape‐Scale Restoration Fund.” Under Section 8401 Promoting Cross-Boundary Wildfire Mitigation, the bill would authorize a new grant program to fund hazardous fuel reduction projects across landscapes on Federal and non-Federal land. The program targets State foresters and would require recipients to consult with owners of state, county, tribal, and private landowners to carryout cross-boundary hazardous fuels reduction projects.
The House and Senate have yet to announce the team to negotiate the final version of the bill. The two versions of the bill differ greatly in key areas. Negotiations are expected to last through the summer, and Congress may need to pass a Farm Bill extension before current funding expires on September 30, 2018. Both versions of the 2018 Farm Bill include critical funding for farmers and rural areas, and the pressure is on Congress to cut a deal before the September deadline.