Talking to a production agriculture crowd visiting his home state, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway was right at home as he told thousands of farmers he was determined to get a farm bill passed for them on time.
Conaway, a Republican whose district is about 300 miles northwest of San Antonio, told the Commodity Classic crowd that President Donald Trump has said a farm bill is important, even though Trump did not make any mention of agriculture in his agenda during his speech to Congress on Tuesday.
“He has said more than once he wants a farm bill on time,” Conaway said. “He wants a strong farm bill. He understands the importance of production agriculture to the economy, to jobs and everything else that’s going on. So I think we have got a good ally and advocate in the White House.”
Before he spoke to the larger crowd, Conaway said he met with leaders of the four major crops at Commodity Classic — corn, soybeans, wheat and sorghum — to encourage them to get their ideas together. Conaway said he is driven to get the farm bill done on time, noting it has been 16 years since the farm bill was completed on time.
Yet, the chairman added that the challenge will be to hopefully keep the funding level set in the 2014 farm bill. Conaway pointed to the cuts taken in the last farm bill and to crop insurance in the years just prior to that. “Production agriculture has done its share and we should be holding what we got as we move forward,” Conaway said.
Speaking to reporters later, Conaway referenced the Agriculture Committee letter to the Budget Committee the current farm bill has an estimated $104 billion in budget savings over 10 years. “We’re going to do to the best job we can to hold the line where we are … As they say when they are asking for money, we gave at the office.”
While hoping to hold the line on the farm bill, Conaway and the agricultural community will have to deal with the Trump administration seeking $1 trillion in spending over the next 10 years on an infrastructure program and proposing large tax cuts as well in a tax-reform package. Along with that, the president also wants to boost spending on defense and efforts to tighten immigration enforcement.
Conaway acknowledged he’s been on a two-year honeymoon with production agriculture because he hasn’t yet had to do a farm bill. He said the honeymoon will be over when the tough calls on spending have to be made. “What I do ask folks if they have got some sort of new program or they do specifically have a request for more money, who are you going to take away from?” he said. “I anticipate those are going to be some really difficult decisions to make and choices.”
Conaway noted he had talked a couple of times with Secretary of Agriculture nominee Sonny Perdue, but Conaway said the two have not talked about whether the Trump administration would want to propose its own farm-bill ideas. Conaway somewhat demurred when asked what he and other Ag Committee members would think of an administration proposal.
“We all have our equities and we’re jealous of these equities,” Conaway said.
Still, several groups already see areas they want to change, and Perdue could help there once he is in office. The cotton producers want to be back in the commodity programs, which could occur if the new USDA administration makes the move to declare cottonseed as an oilseed under the Price Loss Coverage program. Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack argued that could not be done under the 2014 farm bill language, but the Trump administration could interpret that language differently.
“That’s something I would be open to once Sonny’s confirmed,” Conaway said.
Looking at conservation, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., ranking member of the Ag Committee, has pitched the idea of bumping the Conservation Reserve Program up to 40 million acres from the current 24-million-acre cap. It’s unclear, though, how such an increase would be funded unless rental rates for CRP were dramatically lowered. Conaway said that kind of issue would be addressed as the committee goes forward to see what can be done.
“I’m not in the business of negotiating against myself, but we’ll see where we go with it and what’s possible,” Conaway said. “In all likelihood, it would be a closed loop, so you take money away from one place to increase there. Where’s Collin going to get the money to put into CRP, and who does he take it away from?”
Conaway’s plans for a farm bill also may cross with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who has goals of an all-out welfare reform legislation in 2018. It’s unclear how Ryan’s plans would link to the farm bill nutrition programs. In the run-up to the 2014 farm bill, House conservatives pushed to split nutrition programs from the farm bill as a reform measure. Conaway said the only people who want to separate the farm programs from the nutrition programs are those groups that want to kill the farm bill outright. “I am spectacularly opposed to that,” Conaway said.
The chairman also cautioned against adding layers of complications to food. He specifically pointed to the efforts to label food containing ingredients from biotech crops as a cost addition to the food. He said the top 20% of income earners in America spend more on food than the disposable income of the people at the bottom 20% of the income ladder. Conaway said his mission was to protect the ability of the people at the bottom 20% to afford quality food.
“As we look at changes in the farm bill, I’m going to ask ‘What does it do to the cost of food? What does it do to the single mom that lives paycheck to paycheck, isn’t on food stamps, but is struggling to make ends meet?'” Conaway said.
Chris Clayton can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN