The Senate agreed by voice vote Tuesday to go conference with the House to negotiate a new version of the farm bill before the current legislation expires, even if that means working through the summer recess.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that he was hopeful the farm bill conference report would be ready for a vote after Labor Day. The Senate is expected to name nine negotiators, five Republicans and four Democrats.
The House named 47 conferees on July 18, 29 Republicans and 18 Democrats. Twenty-three are from the House Agriculture Committee and the rest from eight committees that have jurisdiction over portions of the bill’s 12 titles.
McConnell, R-Ky., said the leaders of the House Agriculture Committee and the Senate Agriculture Committee are in touch despite the August recess on the House side.
Both chambers’ bill versions would authorize and set policies for agricultural research, conservation, nutrition, trade promotion, crop insurance and other programs. The current farm bill expires Sept. 30.
The four principals, Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., with ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and House Agriculture Chairman K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, with ranking member Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., said they will meet and talk by phone in August while staffers from the Agriculture panels work on sections of the bill.
The four lawmakers met in a closed-door session July 27 to begin initial discussions. Conaway has said he will return to Washington, if necessary. Roberts and Stabenow said earlier Tuesday that they are expecting a meeting of the full conference in late August. House conferees have been told they are on call for a possible meeting during their recess.
The most sharply contested difference between the House and Senate farm bills is the treatment of work requirements under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program.
The Senate bill would keep the current 20-hour work requirements for able-bodied adults and would incorporate findings from 10 state pilot projects that approach work and education for work-age adults. The bill would fund an additional eight state demonstration projects that focus on SNAP recipients with problems finding work.
The legislation would make it easier for state agencies to work with the private sector in training SNAP recipients for jobs. It would also end a bonus program that rewarded states with low error rates in benefit payments because of Justice Department concerns that several states manipulated data to collect rewards.
The House bill would expand work mandates to able-bodied adults aged 18 to 59 that they must meet in order to keep their food benefits. The 20-hour weekly requirement would gradually be increased to 25 hours.
The legislation also would tighten eligibility requirements, change the way monthly benefits are calculated, and shift billions of dollars from food benefits into funding for state SNAP job-training and education programs.
On farm programs, the House bill tweaks the Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage programs to improve the likelihood of payments to participating farmers if market prices or revenues continue a multi-year decline.
The House also would cut $800 million from conservation programs over the 10-year window the Congressional Budget Office uses for estimating costs. The Senate bill does not make an overall cut to conservation funding.
The House bill also would merge the Conservation Stewardship Program into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program while the Senate bill would keep them as separate programs. The two programs are the largest Agriculture Department conservation efforts to protect soil, reduce runoff and improve wildlife habitat. They are classified as working land programs because farmers and ranchers who participate can continue to grow crops and raise livestock on the enrolled acres.
The Senate bill would continue the Conservation Stewardship Program as a stand-alone program.
The bills also differ in how they treat the Conservation Reserve Program, which provides 10- and 15-year contracts to farmers who take environmentally sensitive land out of production. The House would raise the cap on acres enrolled in the program from the current 24 million acres to 29 million acres while the Senate would raise it to 26 million acres.
In years of good market prices, farmers are less interested in idling productive land. Interest in the program runs higher in times of low or fluctuating prices like the past four years because farmers are paid an annual stipend to keep their land in the program. But the rates paid have drawn concerns that they are helping to inflate land values in some areas. Higher land values make it more difficult for beginning farmers to buy or rent acres for their operations.
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