July 2023 Policy Connection

Congressional News

Ag Committee Leaders Acknowledge Likelihood of Farm Bill Extension 

The current farm bill expires on September 30, but it appears increasingly likely that lawmakers will need to pass a short-term extension to ensure farm bill programs remain authorized. Covid-19, debt ceiling negotiations, and a busy summer appropriations calendar have combined to delay the drafting process of the new bill. Senator Debbie Stabenow, Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said at an event in late June hosted by Bloomberg Government, “It would not surprise me” if lawmakers passed a short-term extension of the current farm bill.” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s Dear Colleague letter in early July demonstrates just how much the Senate has on the docket to get done before September. 

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Representative GT Thompson also told reporters that “Sept. 30 is uncomfortably close,” at a briefing last week.  

We will continue to keep you updated on the timing of the 2023 Farm Bill as we learn more. Keep your eye out for a network briefing once the Chairwoman’s mark – or first bill draft – is released. 

Ag Committee Leaders to CBO: Where are the scores?

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is responsible for providing required spending projections for changes to farm bill programs as well as the cost of the entire legislation over 10 years. The CBO released updates in May to the 2023 baselines for commodity, conservation, and nutrition programs but there remain many outstanding scoring requests according to a letter to Senate Budget Committee leaders and the CBO director. 

With “several hundred” more scoring requests to come, Ag Committee leaders are imploring the CBO to ramp up staffing to keep up so that the 2023 Farm Bill development process may continue.

Senate Ag Committee Holds Hearing on Rural Water and Community Water Systems

The Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development and Energy invited five witnesses to testify at a hearing focused on opportunities to modernize community water systems. Subcommittee Chair Sen. Peter Welch (D-VT) highlighted the significant challenges posed by outdated water infrastructure in rural communities, especially in the face of climate-change-induced extreme weather events, and noted he wants “increase funding where we can and protect funding where we need to” in the 2023 Farm Bill to address these challenges. 

You can watch the full hearing as well as view witness testimonies here.

Booker and Salinas Introduce Bill to Revise Crop Insurance 

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. Andrea Salinas (D-OR-6) introduced the Insuring Fairness for Family Farmers Act to provide incentives for crop insurance agents to provide coverage to specialty crops and small farmers. The bill would also change the way crop insurance agents are compensated, which currently incentivizes insurance policies for larger farms. 

This bill comes on the heels of a new Environmental Working Group report noting that “One-third of all crop insurance subsidies flow to massive insurance companies and agents, not farmers.” 

Tracking Marker Bills for the 2023 Farm Bill 

SAFSF member Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI)’s marker bill tracker includes bills that have been introduced already, either in the 118th Congress, or previous sessions, and which RAFI-USA has endorsed. This is a great tool to review the diversity of policy ideas that legislators have developed for inclusion in the 2023 Farm Bill. Note that the more support a marker bill gains, both from legislators and community members, the more likely it is to be included. 

The Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) is a marker bill that has gained significant support for its systematic approach to addressing climate change through food and agriculture. We are working with Representative Chellie Pingree’s (D-ME-1) office to reschedule the webinar delving into the ARA we previously planned for July – stay tuned! 

Republicans Propose Further Restrictions in House Food and Agriculture Appropriations Bill

While appropriations season is all year round, the process heats up in the Summer months as Congress determines how much funding to allocate to federal agencies and programs before the next fiscal year begins on October 1st. The Fiscal Responsibility Act (the result of debt ceiling negotiations earlier this summer) added a few details to the process for FY24: non-defense spending is capped at $704 billion (up to a 9 percent decrease from FY23). 

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees are currently voting on 12 appropriations bills, that will eventually be brought to the floor of each chamber and reconciled. As we discussed last month, the House and Senate appropriations bills for food and agriculture propose vastly different funding levels, with House Republicans opting to slash funding for nutrition and conservation programs. This spending bill became further complicated last week as lawmakers submitted more than 125 amendments, including numerous Republican amendments to further tighten SNAP work requirements. The bill is set to be considered by the House Rules Committee this week. Keep in mind, though, such proposals face a wall of Democratic opposition. Biden has also vowed to veto the bill if it reaches his desk in current form. 

To keep track of where each appropriations bill stands, check out this resource from the Congressional Research Service. 

Administrative + Agency News

Xochitl Torres Small Confirmed as USDA Deputy Secretary

The Senate confirmed Xochitl Torres Small as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture on July 11 by a vote of 84-8. She is a former Representative of New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional district, the former undersecretary for Rural Development, the granddaughter of migrant farm workers, and the first Latina to hold the position. As Deputy Secretary, she now serves in the No. 2 spot at USDA, directly under Secretary Tom Vilsack, and is responsible for the executive functioning of the department. 
Torres-Small noted, “To get to be deputy secretary and in charge of the backend of the shop is really exciting because we impact people’s lives in so many ways,” ahead of her swearing-in ceremony at USDA on July 17.

USDA Discrimination Financial Assistance Program Application Opens

Farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners who experienced discrimination by USDA in its farm loan programs prior to January 1, 2021, and/or are currently debtors of USDA farm loan debt that was the subject of USDA discrimination that occurred prior to January 1, 2021, are eligible for this program. The portal to apply for relief is now open

Payments will be funded by a provision in the Inflation Reduction Act and represent an attempt to remedy USDA’s decades of racism, discrimination, and injustice toward BIPOC farmers. Notably, however, the payments are subject to tax liability. Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), and Tina Smith (D-MN) introduced the Family Farmer and Rancher Tax Fairness Act in January to make these payments tax-exempt though the legislation has not seen further action.

A federal judge blocked efforts in 2021 to include debt relief specifically for farmers of color in the American Rescue Plan Act after white farmers launched dozens of lawsuits. 

USDA Announces $300m to Advance Greenhouse Gas Measurement and Monitoring for Agriculture and Forest Sectors

The Inflation Reduction Act tasked USDA with quantifying and tracking carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions and gathering field-based data to evaluate the effectiveness of climate-smart mitigation practices in reducing these emissions. USDA will now invest $300 million in IRA funds to advance seven focus areas in support of this broader goal: 

  • Establish and advance a Soil Carbon Monitoring and Research Network with a perennial biomass component;
  • Establish and advance a Greenhouse Gas Research Network;
  • Expand data management, infrastructure and capacity;
  • Improve models and tools for assessing greenhouse gas outcomes at operational, state, regional, and national scales;
  • Improve NRCS conservation practice standards and implementation data to reflect greenhouse gas mitigation opportunities;
  • Improve temporal and spatial coverage of national conservation activity data; and
  • Strengthen the Greenhouse Gas Inventory and Assessment Program of USDA.

USDA Launches Partnership with State Attorneys General to Help Reduce Anticompetitive Barriers

USDA launched a partnership with bipartisan attorneys general in 31 states and D.C. to enhance competition and protect consumers in food and agricultural markets including grocery and meat and poultry processing. The initiative is intended to better allow state attorneys general to conduct on-the-ground assessments of competition and consumer issues, enhance coordination between federal and state agriculture and competition authorities, create new and more independent research programs, and ultimately result in fairer and competitive markets and resilient supply chains.

Focus areas of the Agricultural Competition Partnership include:

  • Anticompetitive market structures and practices, as well as price gouging and other anti-consumer practices, in food, retail, meat and poultry processing, and other agriculture industries.
  • Lack of choices for consumers and producers.
  • Conflicts of interest, misuse of intellectual property, and anti-competitive barriers across the food and agriculture supply chains, such as in seed markets.

State Policy News

Washington State Formally Updates Heat Protections for Outdoor Workers

Following two years of temporary emergency rules brought on by heat dome-inducing temperatures, the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) has filed a final rule to help protect outdoor workers, including farmworkers, from heat stroke and other illnesses related to hot weather. Employers are now required to allow workers to take preventative cool-down periods, update their outdoor heat exposure safety programs, and train workers and supervisors on the plan and the new requirements.

Only three other states – California, Oregon, and Colorado – have passed heat protection standards for outdoor workers.