Mike Conaway speaking at Commodity Classic 2017.
Mike Conaway

House Ag chairman delivers address at Commodity Classic

In lieu of a new Secretary of Agriculture, Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, makes his case for a new farm bill.

U.S. agriculture knows who the next Secretary of Agriculture will be, but Sonny Perdue is not in the job yet. That doesn't mean work hasn't already started on the 2018 farm bill. This week, attendees at Commodity Classic in San Antonio, Texas, got a briefing on progress for the new farm bill from House Ag Committee Chairman Mike Conaway.

The Texas Republican is committed to one thing – getting the farm bill through on time. "President Trump didn't say much about agriculture [in his recent speech to Congress] but he has said he wants a farm bill done on time, and he wants a strong farm bill," Conaway told the crowd. "We have a good ally and advocate in the White House."

Conaway noted getting the farm bill done on time is a tall challenge because the farm bill hasn't been renewed on time in the past 16 years. But he told the crowd "if you want the drama with short-term extensions and the threat of the permanent law, then go to a different theater. We're going to work hard not to let that happen."

Part of that confidence stems from the fact that the 2018 Farm Bill may not look much different than the 2014 bill. Key areas of attention for Conaway include:

  • Getting cotton back in the program because he said the Stacked Income Protection Plan, or STAX, is not working.
  • The dairy program, which he said needs to be retooled.
  • Retooling the Agricultural Risk Coverage plan to be a stronger safety net.

Conaway is pushing cotton forward, but when asked about concerns of a Southern House Ag Chair and a Southern Secretary of Agriculture (when Perdue is confirmed) he added he wants to serve the whole country. "I'm going to work hard to be production agriculture's best friend and advocate period," he said.

Another issue that brings some confidence in moving this farm bill forward is the changed economic situation versus the 2014 bill. "Back in the halcyon days of 2014 people were misguidedly asking that with things so great and prices that were never going down again, why would we need another farm bill," he recalled. "But prices did go down and this time around we won't have to explain to folks why we need the safety net."

Linking to the consumer
Conaway said the farm bill has value to keeping the cost of food in line. He characterized the issue for the family that needs support, noting the top 20% of people in the United States now spend more on food than the bottom 20% make in annual income.

He points to the GMO labeling issue and how some said without the federal law the new labeling requirements could have added $1,000 to the family food bill in a year. "For that top 20% that's not a problem but for the single mother with children the food portion of the budget is what flexed."

His point is that he will keep the cost of food as part of the conversation in the creation of a new farm bill.

He also notes while ag groups are going to have to work shoulder to shoulder to get the bill through, there's another group that should be concerned. "I would argue a broader group should be demanding to get this done; that's the folks who eat every day," he said.

Conaway deputized the Commodity Classic ballroom of attendees to get out and tell the story of the farm bill to consumers and explain its role in providing the most abundant, cheapest supply of food in the world.

Complicating factors
Farmers shouldn't expect a bigger farm bill budget than in the past. In fact, Conaway sees farm bill spending set as flat for the 2018 measure. That means there will be rejiggering inside the bill to meet specific needs.

He pointed to House Speaker Paul Ryan's moves toward welfare reform in 2018. Nutrition programs will be part of that, which could slow the farm bill's progress. Conaway noted it might be necessary from a procedural standpoint to split farm programs from nutrition programs, but he's against the idea. In a media conference he said "the only people who want to split farm programs from the nutrition programs are people who want to kill the farm bill."

Another potential issue is tax reform, which could also impact farm bill action, as well as rising spending for defense and other programs proposed by President Trump that could derail some spending. Trump is pushing for revenue neutral ways to move more money to defense, and the impact is not yet known.

Trade is another issue on the minds of many farmers. With the end of TPP, which Conaway said was seen by all farmers – except rice and tobacco producers - as a good idea, there's the idea of looking forward to better deals. However, Conaway noted he has spoken with some key leaders in the Trump administration and trade positions have yet to be filled to get moving on new bilateral agreements.

He did add, however, the Trump Administration trade officials have learned that exports are also important to keeping the trade deficit lower. Market access will be important moving forward.

The budget and the farm bill
If farm bill spending is to remain flat, Conaway acknowledges there will be some internal dealing to be done. He doesn't anticipate more money being available for new programs in the bill, which will mean figuring out how to pay for what is included.

For example, fellow committee member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., wants to push the Conservation Reserve Program to nearly 40 million acres. "Collin has a seat at the table, and that's one of the wishes to be addressed," he said. Subcommittees focused on conservation will be tasked to figure out how to pay for these items.

Other areas that have seen discretionary cuts in the past few years are Foreign Market Development and Market Assistance Program funds which would help promote trade. Conaway said those are the issues that have to be worked out in the new bill.

When asked about his confidence in getting the farm bill done on time, Conaway said most of his confidence comes from "it's the right thing to do."

As he wrapped up his talk to the Commodity Classic attendees he got a standing ovation, and he returned to the podium: "I have gotten a lot of hugs, and standing ovations recently," he said. "But I've never worked on a farm bill. As we get to work, let's remember these moments."

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