The long wait for a farm bill is likely over.
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, the DFLer who represents western Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District, has been hopping around the state this week promising Congress will soon vote on a deal to renew and update the massive piece of legislation. While it’s typically passed every five years, the 2014 version of the farm bill actually expired this year after partisan disagreements stalled negotiations.
The legislation funds a bucket of agricultural programs like crop insurance, but most of the money in the bill actually goes toward nutrition programs like food stamps. The 2014 farm bill is estimated to have cost more than $450 billion over its life, roughly 80 percent of which went toward nutrition programs, according to a Congressional report from April.
Full details of the new farm bill that House and Senate leaders agreed to have not been released. But speaking to reporters at Fleming Field airport in South St. Paul, Peterson offered some insights on what’s expected to be in the legislation and the political dynamics of why lawmakers took so long to reach an agreement.
The biggest takeaway: Peterson said the new farm bill won’t be radically different from its previous iteration, since both parties eventually gave up major reforms they argued for. House Republicans had notably wanted to attach new work requirements to the money for food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Peterson said Democrats wouldn’t support that and the proposal also failed to gain traction in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Peterson said “with any luck,” Congress will pass the bill by the end of next week.
“Knowing how things go around here, it may drag into the week after, whatever,” he said. “But I think we are going to get the thing done before the end of the year, which is what I’ve been pushing for.”
What’s in the bill — and what isn’t
Peterson said the “biggest winner” in the new farm bill will be dairy farmers. The congressman said he expects there to be a boost to safety net programs for the industry, which has been struggling because of low milk prices, among other problems.
But Peterson said the deal will also include a 3-million acre expansion of the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take land out of production while creating environmental benefits such as habitat for wildlife.
The similar (and similarly named) Conservation Stewardship Program, which pays farmers who use environmentally-friendly practices — such as planting cover crops to reduce erosion and prevent fertilizer runoff — will also be reauthorized, Peterson said. An earlier Republican-led House proposal would have eliminated the program while shifting a reduced budget for stewardship contracts to another program.
There is also a mix of small changes to crop insurance planned, Peterson said.
Besides the failed push for changes to SNAP, Peterson said Republicans didn’t get provisions intended to reduce wildfires through forest management practices like removing underbrush, prescribed burns and selective logging. Both political parties and scientists usually support comprehensive forest management which often includes those practices. But Democrats opposed the policies wanted in the farm bill by the GOP, arguing in part that they eliminated necessary environmental reviews.
Democrats didn’t get everything they supported: Peterson said he had hoped to boost payments for a program known as Price Loss Coverage, which doles out money when the price of crops drops below a minimum set in the law.
Responding to the politics of the moment
As Peterson tells it, the farm bill was held up for months because of partisan politics. This may seem obvious. Any bill with influence over hundreds of billions of dollars will inevitably be subject to debate between the two main parties in Washington, D.C. But Peterson described in detail how the country’s current political landscape affected negotiations on legislation that has long had a reputation of being somewhat bipartisan.
One initial hangup was GOP lawmakers’ insistence on new work requirements for SNAP, which Peterson called a “fool’s errand.” Democrats and some centrist Republicans were against the requirements, saying there is little evidence they work and objecting to the idea of people losing benefits. Republicans eventually folded on the push, marking another failed attempt to cut or limit entitlement spending despite a unified Republican government.
Peterson also said a debate sprouted after Trump blamed deadly wildfires in California on a lack of forest management. Farm bill aside, fact checkers have said at least some of Trump’s claims were misleading, or that Trump oversimplified the causes of the recent large and deadly fires in the state. Most of the fires, for example, were not in forests.
Nevertheless, Trump’s position led House Republicans to demand forest management policy changes in the farm bill, Peterson said. He added that, at one point, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan “was insisting that if they didn’t get this they were going to kill the bill.”
Peterson didn’t extend much credit to fellow Democrats getting a deal done, either, though. He said he didn’t want to wait until his party was in charge of the House to negotiate a new farm bill even though it could plausibly give him more leverage in negotiations.
For one, Peterson said he didn’t want to leave farmers in the lurch for any longer by returning to the drawing board. But he also said that incoming House Democrats — most of whom are more ideologically left-wing than he is — could hamper an agreement because of their own priorities. He claimed many aren’t friendly to agriculture and are not completely aligned with him on what the farm bill should accomplish, noting the new Democrats in the House will be mostly from suburban districts.
Peterson’s 7th Congressional District is mostly rural and conservative, and voters there chose Trump in 2016 by huge margins. Yet they also voted for Peterson over Republican Dave Hughes by 4.3 points in November.
“What happened in this election? They elected all suburban people,” Peterson said of the midterms. “Democrats in red districts or red states, most of them did not survive. [Montana Sen.] Jon Tester and myself are probably the only two who survived in the whole country. And so what am I going to do with a Democratic caucus that is 95 percent urban/suburban?”
A preview of Chairman Peterson
Peterson’s comments offer a glimpse at what the DFLer could be like as chairman of the Agriculture Committee. As the top Democrat on the committee, he is expected to take over that position.
On Tuesday in South St. Paul, Peterson was equally quick to push back on Republicans and Democrats who don’t hew to the political center — or who don’t represent a significant chunk of farmers in their district — for mucking up talks over the farm bill.
He lashed out at the Freedom Caucus, a bloc of conservative House Republicans who often vote together, for threatening progress on the legislation. But he also blamed his party for their views on the Conservation Reserve Program, saying environmentalists “hijacked” it to try and build pollinator habitat and other priorities that resulted in overspending. Peterson said the updated farm bill will put “significant” new limits on the program.
“This might be the last farm bill,” he said. “It just seems like it just gets worse every time. And the Congress has become more and more urban and suburban. This last election made that even more so.”
Overall, Peterson said he was worried the farm bill wouldn’t do enough to help farmers, but said it was important to cut a deal. He promised to revisit some issues later on, if need be.
“So, no, it isn’t the best possible bill, but it’s the best bill possible,” Peterson said.