A tale of two farm bills: House, Senate versions to be hashed out

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jim Young, Reuters

By Mark Pattison

(CNS) — With House passage of a new five-year farm bill in the rearview mirror
and passage of a Senate version looming straight ahead, it’s going to take a
House-Senate conference committee to reconcile what is turning out to be
considerably different versions of the farm bill.

in an interesting period,” said James Ennis, executive director of Catholic
Rural Life.

Senate version, which received a 20-1 vote in committee to send to the floor,
where debate started June 28, “is very bipartisan,” Ennis told Catholic News
Service. “The Senate version in its current state looks a lot like the 2014
farm bill.”

the House version that has Ennis and other rural advocates concerned. It passed
June 21 by just two votes, 213-211, and it took several minutes to break the
deadlock while supporters rounded up two more members to vote for it. All those
voting yes were Republicans; 20 Republicans voted no, as did every Democrat

Agriculture Nutrition Act, as the House bill is known, removes money from
conservation programs found in previous farm bills, which are reauthorized
generally twice each decade. The Conservation Stewardship Program was cut entirely.
Access to capital for business training services also was slashed, Ennis said.

Johnson, an Iowa-based senior policy analyst for the Center for Rural Affairs, is
concerned with trends in rural life that see farms getting bigger, with fewer
people to work on them. That leads to smaller town and the problems that come
with it.

a bunch of factors at play,” Johnson said. “Obviously, the folks leave a rural
town, businesses close, places of worship close, schools close, communities dwindle.
Part of our mission is to support the thriving and vibrant rural communities.”

But she
spied something in the House version of the farm bill that would add a new
threat to rural life.

how policy works sometimes,” she told CNS June 28. “You bury things in the language and
it’s hard to see, but what it’s going to do is open up a lot of loopholes in the
farm payment structure and go against the farm safety net,” Johnson said. “It’s
going to allow farms to reorganize into different structures and attract more
subsidy payments.”

In so
doing, she added, “it helps drive farm consolidation, which drives up land prices
and rent prices.” Agribusiness concerns, Johnson said, will more easily be able
exploit the loophole and grab a larger chunk of federal farm subsidy money.

failing with impunity: that’s the farm bill,” said Dee Davis, executive
director of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Kentucky. He criticized
Congress for “having the chance to do something decent, but always getting
right up to the line with it.”

asked, “What do we know?” before answering his own question: “What we do know
is that one out of four kids lives in rural poverty. All the posing and all the
preening by these congressmen is not going to help if it takes away food from
poor people.”

added, “Rural communities have been suffering. We have the food stamp program and
its important impact in rural communities, not just in what it does for
low-income families but what it does to support local economies. If they pull
that away, and don’t replace it with anything for balance, then rural
communities will suffer even more.”

House version of the farm bill imposes stricter work requirements for the
federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once known as food stamps. Some
have predicted 2 million people would lose SNAP benefits were the House bill to
become law, but the number of those affected in rural communities is not known.

feeling is they’ve got a job, they should do it,” Davis said of Congress.

than 300 priests, women religious and lay leaders issued a letter June 21 to Congress to
preserve SNAP. “As Catholics, you know that our church’s social teaching calls
us to serve the common good, and that the government has an important role to
play in supporting our vulnerable neighbors,” said the letter, released by
Faith in Public Life. “There is nothing pro-life about making it harder for
parents to put food on the table for their children.”

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Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison

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