Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to put himself on the farm bill conference committee was insurance that one of his policy priorities — and a key issue for his 2020 re-election campaign — would make it to President Donald Trump’s desk this year.
“At a time when farm income is down and growers are struggling, industrial hemp is a bright spot of agriculture’s future,” McConnell said Tuesday morning. “My provision in the farm bill will not only legalize domestic hemp, but it will also allow state departments of agriculture to be responsible for its oversight.”
The Senate then acted quickly, voting 87-13 in the afternoon to adopt the conference report. It now heads to the House, which could pass it as early as Wednesday and then send it to Trump for his signature.
The leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who led the conference negotiations on the bill on behalf of the chamber, praised the efficient passage as senators seek to complete their remaining work for the 116th Congress.
“We are thrilled to report the U.S. Senate has acted to give certainty and predictability to rural America,” Kansas Republican Pat Roberts and Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow said. “This is the mark of a good bill. We urge our colleagues in the House of Representatives to pass this conference report quickly.”
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When at home in Kentucky, McConnell has regularly visited hemp farmers and processing facilities, often stressing to critics that industrial hemp comes from a different plant from marijuana. His leadership role in securing legal status for the potentially lucrative cash crop is sure to come up over and over again.
“My being in the majority leader position is a real advantage to Kentucky. It gives us a chance to kind of punch above our weight,” McConnell said in an interview that aired over the weekend. “This opportunity for Kentucky produces things like the legalization of industrial hemp.”
McConnell will no doubt use the hemp policy and any financial benefits that come to Kentucky farmers over the next two years as a recurring campaign theme in appearances and TV ads, as part of his emphasis on Kentucky-based issues.
Ahead of his successful 2014 campaign, McConnell frequently spoke of his advocacy for the “Freedom to Fish” effort, which incorporated language in a water resources bill that prevented the Army Corps of Engineers from blocking access to popular fishing areas in Kentucky.
“I’m in the middle of every discussion on every issue, looking for opportunities to help our state” he said. “I don’t think we ought to prematurely give that up because it only comes along occasionally. We had one other — Alben Barkley back in the ’30s.”
Barkley, a Democrat, was the majority leader for about a decade, from the middle of 1937 all the way through World War II.
“This could be big,” McConnell told Lexington CBS affiliate WKYT. “I don’t want to overstate this. We all know how important tobacco was to Kentucky a few years ago, but there’s excitement about hemp.”
“There’s hemp all over America right now. It’s all imported,” McConnell added. “There’s no reason why American farmers shouldn’t be able to grow this crop.”
The interview came before text of the farm bill conference agreement was released Monday night (which McConnell said on Twitter that he had signed with a hemp pen), but as reported last week, it was clear by the time the WKYT interview was recorded that the conference would go his way.
And McConnell continued to record more local interviews about the farm bill and the new hemp program.
The language in the bill would enable hemp growers to get access to crop insurance. And as for the regulatory environment, the agreement removes the plant from the controlled substances list, which, according to McConnell, “moves it out of the Justice Department, over to the Department of Agriculture.”
Kentucky has already run pilot programs, so the commonwealth’s farmers might have an early leg up over those in other states.
“I don’t know how big this can become, but I know we’re ahead of everybody else. We’re not afraid of the competition,” McConnell said.
Something for everyone
The majority leader, of course, was not alone in highlighting local priorities in the farm measure.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the lead Democratic supporter of the hemp legislation, also praised its inclusion in the conference report.
“For too long, the outrageous and outdated ban on growing hemp has hamstrung farmers in Oregon and across the country,” Wyden said. “Hemp products are made in America, sold in America, and consumed in America. Now, hemp will be able to be legally grown in America, to the economic benefit of consumers and farmers in Oregon and nationwide.”
Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a former Agriculture chairman, highlighted a number of provisions important to his home state of Vermont, including language that will block the Food and Drug Administration from requiring “added sugar” labels on bottles of maple syrup.
“This is a Farm Bill that will provide certainty to the nation’s struggling farmers; maintain food security for millions of American families; provide for cleaner waterways, better soils, protected open space, healthier forests, and the preservation of family farms; make our drinking water safer; and give communities across rural America a much needed economic boost,” Leahy said in a statement.
The 807-page farm bill also rejects controversial House provisions to tie food stamp benefits to expanded work requirements, but embraces House proposals to expand eligibility for subsidies to a farmer’s first cousins, nephews and nieces if they meet certain requirements.
The wide-ranging legislation authorizes and sets policies for farm programs, conservation, nutrition, rural development and other areas. The bill is budget neutral and written to the Congressional Budget Office’s farm bill baseline.
Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.