By TIMOTHY EGGERT
Illinois farmers can expect to finish fall harvest before Congress completes work on the 2023 farm bill.
That was a central message about the $1 trillion legislation delivered by four of the five U.S. House members from Illinois who serve on the ag committee during listening sessions, panel discussions and interviews at the Farm Progress Show in Decatur.
Their shared outlook comes a month before programs in the current bill begin to expire Sept. 30 and as lawmakers returned to Washington, D.C., Sept. 12 after their August recess. Policymakers will also need to address the 11 annual agency appropriations bills they failed to advance this summer or risk a government shutdown.
“Congress has a little bit of time. They can work some of this out,” said Jonathan Coppess, University of Illinois associate professor and director of the Gardner Agriculture Policy Program. “But it also creates a lot of uncertainty, and nobody likes to manage around uncertainty. Believe it or not, not even Congress.”
While U.S. Reps. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro; Nikki Budzinski, D-Springfield; Mary Miller, R-Oakland; and Eric Sorensen, D-Moline; all said they hadn’t yet seen legislative text and largely agreed the farm bill will likely not be done before the deadline, they differed on the specific timeline over the next few weeks.
Bost offered the most optimistic view, telling FarmWeek in an interview he thinks “we’ll get it through the House the last day of September” and that “if the Senate isn’t being able to get their job done in time,” lawmakers will pass an extension.
He said House Ag Committee chair Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pennsylvania, and his staff spent two days recently “writing the actual language” of the House-version of the bill. That insight came directly from Thompson when he and Bost co-hosted a listening session at a farm in Effingham County and toured other operations in south-central and southern Illinois.
Thompson told reporters after the Aug. 23 listening session that although some programs do last through the end of the year, “there’ll probably be a need for some type of an extension going forward.”
Miller, speaking at a listening session co-hosted with five state lawmakers who represent agricultural districts, said “the timing is going to be very important.”
She noted the Senate could introduce legislation soon and that the House’s September schedule has already been shortened, “so that’s not good in light of timing, but we’ve got to work through those things.”
Sorensen said “there’s an optimism that we’ll get it out of the House” before the end of September, but it’s unclear if the Senate could advance its legislation.
“There’s a lot of moving parts, but also an understanding that if we hold it over, the cuts won’t be there,” said Sorensen, theorizing that missing the deadline could give policymakers more time to negotiate or at least have a fuller picture of agency spending levels for the next fiscal year.
Budzinski explained to FarmWeek that Thompson “is very reassuring that we’re going to get to the business at hand, which is actually getting into committee when we get back in mid-September, seeing actual language, text for the farm bill in committee.”
She spent time with Bost, Miller and Sorensen at the trade show touring the ag equipment and speaking together on a panel. Asked to characterize any discussions the members had between themselves, Budzinski said there was “unanimous support around the priorities we shared and the fact that this needs to get done for our family farmers.”
Impacts of missed deadline; concerns around ag appropriations
If Congress does go past the Sept. 30 deadline, “nothing just automatically slams shut or shuts off immediately,” Coppess said.
“The crop insurance program continues, it’s permanently authorized, conservation programs are continuous through 2031 and the (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) basically continues and operates,” the former staffer to U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, said.
Enrollment in Title I ag safety net programs tied to the current 2023 crop year also wouldn’t be impacted by a missed deadline or extension because they run on a crop-year basis. But “the big issue doesn’t really hit until the next crop year,” Coppess added, alluding to the March program enrollment timeframe.
As for his prospects on moving the bill out of the House, Coppess said that chamber “gives us a lot of things to be concerned about” because “we’ve seen them struggle to do some pretty standard things like appropriations bills, things that we think are bipartisan or relatively nonpartisan.”
The farm bill won’t pass through either chamber of Congress without a coalition, he said.
“If members don’t sort of see the big coalitional value to cross party lines, cross urban rural, those sorts of issues; If we can’t get over that, then the path gets very narrow and very rocky and very steep very quickly,” Coppess said.
Some of those dynamics were alluded to by the four House Ag members from Illinois, with Sorensen cautioning against “poison” in the farm bill and the appropriations bills.
“We’ve got to make sure, as (Thompson) has mentioned before, that we don’t have a few second cousins that are sitting at this family table that are going to take it over, take the conversation away,” Sorensen said. “And we can’t allow this to get to the House floor.”
Bost said the legislation’s make-or-break status will, like previous farm bills, again depend on revisions to SNAP and the marriage of the nutrition and commodity titles.
“Our left is definitely not wanting (cuts to SNAP) at all and our right wants more,” Bost said. “It is a tricky balance, but remember, even though that’s the biggest part of the farm bill, the most important part of the farm bill to a majority of my constituents is that safety net.”
Miller referenced the same issue, telling the farmers and ag stakeholders gathered for her event that “I am not for dividing the farm bill into SNAP and ag production, I’m not.”
“But,” Miller continued, “we’re on the verge of not being able to call it ‘the farm bill’ (because) 85% of the farm bill money is going to SNAP payments, and food production, the producers, are being left out and we need to fight back and speak up about that.”
Miller, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, has advocated for steep cuts to nutrition program spending and supported reforms to SNAP work and age requirements. Some of those revisions were included in a compromise over the debt ceiling reached earlier this year, and more cuts were included in the GOP’s appropriations bill for USDA.
Budzinski, referring to the bill formulated by House Republicans, said “family farmers deserve better than that” and she would vote against it.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack called out the proposed spending bill during a meeting of Budzinski’s agriculture advisory council at the show, framing it as “not acceptable” because “it’s calling for about an $8 billion cut in a $24 billion budget.”
“Frankly, it’s kind of a punitive budget,” Vilsack said, later adding “the Senate budget is a much more realistic budget. But it too, because of the debt ceiling agreement, is basically a status quo budget.”
This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.