The Farm Bill four horsemen — House Agriculture committee chair G.T. Thompson, House Ag committee ranking member David Scott, Senate Agriculture chair Debbie Stabenow and Senate Ag committee ranking member John Boozman — have finally come around to a viewpoint that’s been obvious to all for the last several months: President Joe Biden won’t be signing a new Farm Bill this year, and an extension will be needed to prevent support for dairy and other programs from going belly up early next year.
The Farm Bill must be reauthorized by Congress every five years. Failure to reauthorize the law or allow it to completely lapse would have devastating effects on the nation’s farmers, who would find themselves dealing with price controls from the 1930s and 1940s.
The most visible impact on Jan. 1, 2024, is what insiders call the “milk cliff.” Without a Farm Bill the government would be legally required to purchase milk at about twice the current market price to sustain the milk market. Needless to say, farmers will rush to sell milk to the government, creating shortages in the retail sector. And it won’t be long before you’ll be paying much higher prices for dairy. Cheese and butter prices would also spike.
The Senate bi-partisan version of a new Farm Bill is essentially written, but Republican extremism in the House conference has slowed what, with some road bumps, has over the years historically been a bi-partisan process in the agricultural committee.
Newly minted House Speaker Mike Johnson has penciled in one week for debate on the Farm Bill next month, demanding Thompson get on with it. Johnson wants to release a first-draft of the measure two weeks before the debate. Johnson also wants it wrapped up before Dec. 31. That’s drafting, debating and voting on what at the moment is estimated as a gargantuan $1.4 trillion bill. No pressure. Not.
If the House Ag committee keeps that schedule, we could see GOP priorities any day now.
And that’s where the Farm Bill debate could go completely off the rails. Farm bill discussions are already contentious. Farm groups want to expand federally subsidized crop insurance. Their allies in Congress want to claw back $20 billion dollars from Biden’s climate funding programs, to which Democrats say, to no one’s surprise, that is a non-starter.
But that fight would pale by comparison if hard-line House right wingers get their way. Encouraged by Johnson’s unlikely ascent to the House speaker’s chair, they are plotting how to gut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the country’s largest anti-hunger program. In the 2018 Farm Bill debate, Johnson called SNAP, “our nation’s most broken and bloated welfare program.”
And left to his own devices, Johnson would have no problem casting his personal vote to limit SNAP’s assistance to the public. But as House Speaker, he is stuck with a rather tricky political wicket.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Johnson would love to deliver a conservative win, but if he goes too far to cripple SNAP, he could very well find himself as House minority leader in 2024.
Ironically, Johnson was part of the House GOP conference team that shepherded in new SNAP work requirements earlier this year during the debt deal with Democrats.
Now Johnson faces a far more difficult political calculation. House Republicans are also balking at the Farm Bill’s overall price tag.
For his part, Thompson isn’t keen on reopening the SNAP debate, knowing the Farm Bill will probably need some Democrat votes to pass in the House.
But anything is possible where the goal is to win at all costs. A GOP Farm Bill loaded with partisan wishes will certainly be dead on arrival in the Senate. The most likely short-term outcome is an extension of the 2018 Farm Bill – perhaps as long as a year.
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