By Stephanie Mercier
The U.S. government has been enacting farm bills to provide financial support to farmers since the passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, in the throes of the Great Depression. There have been 17 farm bills passed since that time, with the current legislation, the Agricultural Act of 2014, scheduled to expire on October 1, 2018. The House and Senate Agriculture Committees have been at work since the spring of 2017, holding hearings to examine the impacts of shifting market conditions on the performance of U.S. farm bill programs, not just commodity and crop insurance programs but also a broad range of policies covering issues such as nutrition, agricultural trade, conservation, research and extension, forestry, farm credit, horticultural and organic agriculture, renewable energy, and rural economic development. Many of these policy areas have been added to farm bills in the last few decades.
The staffs of both Committees are working on legislative language that would address concerns raised about existing programs, and reports indicate that the House Agriculture Committee will shortly release Chairman Conaway’s draft bill and hold a mark-up to move that legislation forward. The Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to follow suit within a few months, leaving relatively little legislative time for the two Committees to reconcile their differences before the current farm bill expires. Congress traditionally goes into recess for the entire month of August, and since 2018 is an election year, will likely adjourn sometime in October so the members can campaign for their re-election. Many informed observers believe that Congress will likely extend the 2014 farm bill before it expires, giving themselves several additional months to complete their work.
Even though the farm bill now encompasses the broad range of farm policy issues listed above, a number of policies of keen interest to U.S. farmers are under the jurisdiction of Congressional Committees outside the Agriculture Committees. These include the majority of policies that govern the U.S. biofuels industry, such as the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), the biodiesel tax credit, and the bulk of research to develop technology to affordably convert cellulosic material such as corn stover and switchgrass into biofuels, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
The renewable energy title, which first appeared in a farm bill in 2002, is relatively modest in scope, including incentives for farmers to improve the energy efficiency of their operations, assistance for development of bio-refinery facilities, and education for potential biodiesel consumers. Most of the other major programs which establish the framework of U.S. biofuel policy are addressed in legislation that moves through the Natural Resources Committee in the House and the Environment and Public Works Committee in the Senate. The RFS is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Any program or provision that has tax implications, such as the biodiesel tax credit or bonus depreciation for farmers, goes through the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees. The same is true for all legislation that implements trade agreements or alters trade policy, because of the tariff revenue implications of anything that affects cross-border trade.
As is the case with the RFS, the EPA also oversees the implementation of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, which protect the natural environment of our country. Since U.S. farmers and ranchers manage 63 percent of all U.S. land area in the lower 48 states, their care of that land falls under the EPA’s scrutiny. Unlike USDA’s conservation programs, compliance with EPA rules and regulations is neither voluntary nor compensated, so they are often viewed as an excessive burden by farmers and ranchers. EPA also operates the pesticide approval process, as well as participating in approval of GM crop varieties which include resistance to pests as one or more of the stacked traits provided.