E&E News: Spanberger takes to the field in 2023 farm bill debate

E&E NEWS, MARC HELLER

DOSWELL, Va. — Moderate Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger held a summit on the upcoming farm bill in this rural town south of Washington in an effort to play a leading role in crafting the legislation.

Last fall’s election cast Spanberger into the minority on the House Agriculture Committee just as work was beginning on the five-year package, but don’t tell Spanberger she’s now on the defensive.

“I’m going to take a more positive spin,” Spanberger told E&E News before she managed a discussion among farm groups, policymakers and others with a stake in the bill due for renewal by Sept. 30.

While conservation programs she’s promoted will likely be a point of debate with Republicans looking to trim costs, Spanberger said she believes the final bill will reflect bipartisan agreements.

“We’ve got Republicans in the majority in the House, and Democrats in the majority in the Senate, so I think that’s a pretty good forcing mechanism to make sure that kind of all voices and elements of the discussion are heard,” she said.

Tuesday’s daylong session illustrated the wide range — and potential contradictions — of policy choices Congress faces in writing the farm bill, which dictates programs ranging from farmland conservation to crop insurance to putting reliable highspeed internet service in rural communities.

If attendees’ comments are an indication, Spanberger and other lawmakers are under pressure to boost crop insurance — which is already heavily subsidized by the federal government — while maintaining conservation programs that received a big funding increase before Democrats lost their majority. They’re facing calls to put more money into agricultural research and to help prevent the loss of farmland to commercial development.

In conservative circles, they’re hearing that the government already spends too much on farm programs, especially those with a focus on climate change.

And that’s before the costliest part of the farm bill — nutrition, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — sparks some of the sharpest arguments with the new Republican majority. The farm bill summit didn’t touch on the nutrition programs, which stand to become the thorniest part of passing the legislation in the House.

“Right now, we’re starting to see some challenges to the farm bill,” Spanberger told attendees, adding that she wants to be sure that certain policies aren’t derailed as the debate unfolds.

The bill’s overall cost — which could reach $1 trillion for the first time — is setting the stage for conflict as conservative Republicans in the House resist additional spending. That raises the chances that the Republican majority will look to free up money from conservation, for instance, to fund other farm bill priorities.

The Democratic-led Congress devoted more than $18 billion to conservation in the Inflation Reduction Act, directing that climate-smart practices be emphasized, a flash flood of money that’s raised skepticism from Republicans.

Farmers have faced “revolutionary times” since the last farm bill, including record-high expenses that have outpaced price increases for the crops they grow, said Andrew Walmsley, senior director of government affairs for the American Farm Bureau Federation, which is supporting an increase in baseline farm bill spending for the next five years.

“The need’s been out there, but is the farm bill keeping up?” Walmsley said in a panel discussion.

Walmsley said he doubts Congress can pass a final bill by the Sept. 30 deadline, and that a deal by late December is a better bet. Lawmakers would likely extend the 2018 farm bill in the meantime.

For Spanberger, leaving a mark on a farm bill that’s passed on time builds political credibility in rural areas, either for reelection to Congress in 2024 or for a gubernatorial run that she’s reported to be considering.

She’s become one of Congress’ leading advocates for farmland conservation and chaired a related subcommittee for two years but lost here in Caroline County — between Fredericksburg and Richmond — by 54.7 percent to 45.2 percent in 2022.

A centrist Democrat in a caucus that leans left, Spanberger won reelection in a close race, thanks largely to solid wins in Washington’s outer suburbs.

On Tuesday, she brought Zach Ducheneaux, the administrator of the Farm Service Agency, which oversees the conservation reserve and various crop programs and is many farmers’ first point of contact with the Department of Agriculture.

The administrator of USDA’s Rural Utilities Service came, too, touting efforts to expand broadband service in poorly served areas — a mission that also falls to the Federal Communications Commission.

Panelists and other attendees offered an array of complaints and compliments about issues facing rural areas, among them rising land costs that are shutting out beginning farmers and threatening the loss of farmland to commercial development, as well as manure management programs that prod farmers to install better systems to manage animal waste but don’t cover enough of the high cost, according to Jenna Miller of Miller Farms in Locust Grove, Va.

Miller and others had high praise for cover crops — the ground covers farmers plant to hold the soil before they plant the cash crop — that the farm bill encourages.

But Adam Davis, a soybean, wheat and corn farmer in Halifax County, Va., said Congress shouldn’t overlook farmers like him who adopted the practice year ago, if lawmakers adopt new cash incentives or other benefits to encourage conservation.

Agriculture research looks poised for increases, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle saying it’s been underfunded compared with other types of scientific work. But the outlook for specific programs isn’t clear.

The Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority appeared in the farm bill in 2018 as a $50 million pilot program to support high-risk research unlikely to attract industry investments, but Congress has appropriated just $2 million so far.

“The best case, wish-list scenario would be it stays in the farm bill, substantially funded,” Spanberger said, although she said lawmakers might consider ways to boost it outside the five-year legislation. “I’m going to be optimistic that through advocacy, a program that’s part of the farm bill can stay part of the farm bill.”

Several speakers called for a solid commitment to crop insurance, possibly through bigger government subsidies and by covering more crops in more areas.

But the government already pays 60 percent of the premiums, typically, and Spanberger told reporters she’s not sure Congress is looking to pay a bigger percentage. More spending on conservation instead might head off some of insurance payouts from weather disasters, she said.

The Government Accountability Office said crop insurance cost about $90 billion from 2011 to 2021 and covered 493 million acres with 1.2 million policies in 2022.

In a February reportto Congress, GAO recommended that Congress consider limiting crop insurance subsidies for farmers with high incomes, perhaps around $900,000 a year — the same income cap placed on other farm programs — to tamp down overall costs. That could save money for other farm bill programs, GAO said.

“I think if we’re looking at how to best utilize federal dollars and we’re trying to be fiscally responsible, as one would want their member of Congress to be, it can’t just be ‘Let’s push additional dollars out the door,'” Spanberger said. Conservation programs recently boosted in the Inflation Reduction Act might head off some of the insurance payouts from weather disasters, she said.

Crop insurance “has to be there,” Spanberger said. “But wouldn’t they just rather have a really good year?”

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