Farm Progress: House Democrats advance Build Back Better plan

FARM PROGRESS, JACQUI FATKA

After months of negotiations, Friday morning the House passed by a vote of 220-213 H.R. 5376 the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act, which includes many of the Biden administration’s priorities. For agriculture, it offers $28 billion in additional conservation funding to combat climate change, $12 billion for USDA loan debt forgiveness and more money for ag research.

Moderate House members had waited to pass the bill before official scores were released by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which reported on Thursday the bill will add at least $367 billion to the national debt. The bill still needs to be approved by the Senate, where its fate remains in limbo, as passage would require all 50 Democrat senators to vote in favor of the bill.

“The Build Back Better bill is the largest effort in American history to combat the climate crisis and includes a focus on climate smart agriculture. Agriculture can lead the way in the fight on climate with climate smart agriculture and forestry practices that sequester carbon, reduce emissions and create new and better market opportunities for producers,” says Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “With significant investments in resources for farmers, ranchers and forestland owners, this bill provides a host of new tools to deploy important conservation practices and the research essential to inform them. The Forest Service will gain long overdue and significant resources to aggressively manage our forests, reduce fire risks, and keep impacted communities safe.”

As chair of the House Agriculture Committee’s subcommittee on conservation and forestry, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., welcomed the inclusion of her Climate Conservation Corps legislation and additional funds for conservation programs.

“I am proud that this legislation makes a once-in-a-generation investment in existing, voluntary USDA conservation programs building on the climate-smart steps farmers are already taking to leave a healthier climate for future generations,” says Spanberger. “I am also proud that this legislation includes my bipartisan legislation to help growers, producers and rural communities invest in clean energy, energy efficiency and energy storage. Together, we can protect our planet and make these communities more energy independent.”

The bill provides $5 billion for Soil Conservation Assistance for producers who establish cover crops for soil health. Participating producers would receive payments equal to $25 an acre, up to 1,000 acres. Non-operating landowners would receive $5 an acre.

Traditional conservation programs would also see a boost, an idea welcomed by ag industry groups to help fund programs that historically have been overenrolled. An additional $9 billion is provided for the Environmental Quality Incentive Program; $3.75 billion for the Conservation Stewardship Program; $1.25 billion for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program; and $7.15 billion for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.

Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., says that the Build Back Better Act will invest in rural America and deliver for the ag community. “With $12 billion in debt relief for economically distressed farmers and other at-risk producers, $1 billion to support job growth, build economic resilience and aid economic recovery in rural communities and $960 million to invest in biofuels infrastructure, this legislation will help us take on the issues impacting farmers and expand markets for ag commodities,” Bustos says.

Among the measures in the Build Back Better Act, an immigration permit program would authorize Dreamers, farmworkers, Temporary Protected Status holders and other undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for over 10 years to stay and work lawfully without the fear of deportation.

The American Farm Bureau Federation sent a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives earlier in the week stating its opposition to the Build Back Better Act, also known as the reconciliation package.

“While some elements of the reconciliation package would benefit agriculture, the massive amount of spending and tax increases required to pay for the plan outweigh the gains we would see in rural America,” says AFBF President Zippy Duvall. “We appreciate House efforts to protect farmers and ranchers by leaving key tax provisions untouched. Thousands of small businesses, however, would still be affected by tax increases, forcing them to pass increased costs to families across the nation.”

Duvall adds, “The economy is still recovering from the pandemic, supply chains are stressed, and inflation is putting pressure on America’s pocketbooks. Now is not the time to put an additional burden on families struggling to make ends meet. We urge lawmakers to find common ground and work in a bipartisan manner to address the challenges facing our nation.”

The Senate is on recess until Nov. 29, but also faces a deadline to approve annual appropriations with the continuing resolution expiration of Dec. 3.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., helped craft the agricultural provisions with House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott, D-Ga., and House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va. “I am fully committed to passing the Build Back Better Act in the Senate,” Stabenow says.

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