The Farm Bill Conference Committee held its first meeting on Wednesday. All 56 members of the Committe were in attendance, and the Chairs and Ranking Members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees provided opening remarks. The conferees took the meeting as an opportunity to articulate their support for specific Farm Bill programs that benefit for their district.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) led the remarks along with the remainder of the conference committee leadership. With only ten legislative days remaining before funding expires, the conference leaders emphasized rural America’s sense of urgency, and called on their colleagues to negotiate bipartisan solutions to the remaining conflicts between the House and Senate versions of the 2018 Farm Bill. Bipartisan cooperation was a central theme throughout the meeting, but some members continued to drive their party line on key issues that are dividing Congress.
One such issue is the forestry title of the Farm Bill where House Republicans continue to push for forestry management reforms over opposition from Democrats and environmental groups. Representative Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who is both the Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and a member of the Farm Bill Conference Committee, urged the conference to include the forestry title of the House bill in the final legislation. The House version includes portions of Representative Bruce Westerman’s (R-Arkansas) forest management reform bill, HR 2936 the Resilient Federal Forests Act, which grants forest management projects categorical exemptions from environmental regulations. Representative Bishop’s remarks were echoed by Representative Westerman, who also sits on the Conference Committee. Representative Westerman asked his colleagues to adopt his language to grant foresters more tools to improve forest health and reduce wildfires.
Thirteen Republican senators wrote to the leaders of the Farm Bill Conference Committee that same day asking that forest management reforms are included in the 2018 Farm Bill. The letter was signed by a coalition of senators who have supported forest management reform in recent legislation such as Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Steve Daines (R-Montana), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), John Thune (R-South Dakota), and nine other senators from western states that are impacted by wildfires. The signees urge the Conference Committee to include the following policies:
- Facilitate the use of Good Neighbor Authority by expanding it to counties and tribes and codifying existing practices concerning the flow of contributions and receipts associated with these projects.
- Accelerate post-fire restoration and reforestation projects through either a new categorical exclusion or by applying Sections 104 and 106 of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA) to post-fire projects carried out under the Forest Service’s existing Emergency Situation Determination authority.
- Establish a new categorical exclusion for projects that restore watersheds and protect water quality.
Rural broadband was also a topic of discussion during the Farm Bill Conference Committee meeting. Members from rural areas such as Representative John Shimkus (R-Illinois) called on the Conference Committee to include language in the 2018 Farm Bill that expands federal support for rural broadband deployment projects.