What’s inside the much-anticipated farm bill — and why Rep. Collin Peterson blames Democrats and Republicans for its delay

MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Rep. Collin Peterson, speaking to reporters at Fleming Field airport in South St. Paul, 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 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.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 12/05/2018 - 12:07 pm.

    More handouts at taxpayer expense. Democrats support this so they can’t run around claiming things about subsidies. The Ag Bill should be abolished for good. As should many Ag related regulations.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/07/2018 - 01:45 pm.

      Why do these handouts happen? I thought rural voters were all against big government? Surely, supporting these handouts is political suicide, right?

  2. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/05/2018 - 01:14 pm.

    Well looks like Rep. Peterson provides a pretty balanced analysis. Not sure what the solution is, Shrinking out state “Trump Country” doesn’t appear to care much for the growing populated metro’s and their issues, so it appears the metro’s are probably choosing to reciprocate in kind. Instead of we are all in this together, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union” we have political division, and its getting worse, no need look farther than our neighbors to the east, and the leadership in DC. Suspect real change has to start at the kitchen table, the family reunion, and where we get our news from, and questioning the validity/partisanship of that news. Seems 41 might have had it nailed in his letter to 42.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 12/05/2018 - 03:28 pm.

      The political division really can’t be fixed because one side is moving far left and embracing socialism. As with all large populations, the eventual outcome is separation due to too many irreconcible differences. Much like the Soviet Union break up. The US will eventually go the same route unless things break down into violence as happened in the 1860s.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/12/2018 - 12:59 pm.

        Are you trying to suggest that the other side, evidently your side, (not saying I am a side guy) isn’t moving farther right and embracing a authoritarian-totalitarian rule?

  3. Submitted by Phyllis Kahn on 12/05/2018 - 04:57 pm.

    New thing to look at would be planting pollinators on our highway shoulders. Drive 35 north from Iowa and they are not mowed until you cross into MN.

  4. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 12/05/2018 - 06:08 pm.

    Well, as the Chairman Rep. Peterson probably won’t walk out the next two years saying “I’m done”, which will be nice for the folks who elected him. Of course, this only happens if all the new Democrats toe the line and keep the status quo going.

  5. Submitted by R. Hanson on 12/06/2018 - 08:39 am.

    Colin Peterson is a Democrat in name only. He pretty much toes the Republican Party line except for farm handouts. Successful farmers in his district are multi-millionaires. He blames his own party for not forcing disabled people to work to eat, in order to expedite welfare checks to millionaires. I suppose he knows who he is working for.

  6. Submitted by Phyllis Kahn on 12/12/2018 - 04:15 pm.

    One factor not discussed is the liberalization of federal rules on industrial hemp that will increase its profitability as a crop. I passed (along with Rep. Mary Franson, one of the most conservative Republicans) , a bill to allow research plots. I think we have 40 farms and 400 acres devoted to hemp. MN was once a major hemp grower in the US. Besides its profitability, it is a very environmentally friendly crop not needing extra H2O or fertilizer. We need to look at the MN law and see if it needs revisions to meet new standards.

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