The U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee takes up the farm bill on Wednesday.
The package of mainly food and agriculture policy is typically renewed every five years, and the current version expires at the end of September.
So far, the House bill has had a rocky road, and faltered on the floor last month. But the future of the Senate's version seems a bit brighter — the draft bill released last Friday is being hailed as a bipartisan effort.
Morning Edition host Cathy Wurzer checked in with U.S. Sen. Tina Smith about the farm bill's prospects. Smith is a Minnesota Democrat who's on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Comments have been edited for clarity and concision.
The text of this bill was released Friday, it's supposed to be marked up in committee today. What are you expecting out of that process?
I believe that people are feeling good about this farm bill, especially in Minnesota. Right after the text was released, we did a bunch of calls around to people in both the agriculture community and also the food and nutrition community, and everybody feels like this is a good compromise. It's a good bipartisan effort. That's the spirit that these farm bills usually move forward with, and so I'm encouraged that we are going to be able to get a good bill done and it'll be really helpful for Minnesota.
Let's talk a little bit about the food program that was criticized — the House version was criticized by Democrats before for the Republican effort to stiffen work requirements for food stamp recipients. Was there an effort to include some of those requirements in the Senate bill?
Well, the House bill is a great example of how the farm bill fails the test if you don't have bipartisan support. And that really happened on the nutrition side of the bill, and Congressman Peterson — who is a real Minnesota expert on agriculture and the farm bill — of course couldn't vote for it. Here in the Senate we managed to avoid those pitfalls, and I really give great credit to our leaders, both Republican and Democratic leaders, for not falling into that trap.
As you know, there are many, many Minnesota farmers really hurting out there because of low commodity prices. Going through the bill, it doesn't seem to break any new ground. It seems to be mainly renewing and tweaking programs already out there. Do you think that's enough to address the struggles that these farmers are facing?
This is a big topic of conversation with all of the farmers and ranchers that I met with over the course of these first five months, and the overall message I got from them was kind of a 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' message when it comes to the basic farm programs.
Everybody knew from the outset that we weren't going to be seeing major new initiatives. We weren't going to be seeing huge new investments in this farm bill, but [what] we wanted to do was to make sure that the basic farm programs like crop insurance and the conservation programs that are working continue to work, and then also look for some places where we can make some headway. We have some good things to get better broadband into rural communities, which is something that's so important to farmers. Also, some good improvements in the energy program, which is a little-known but really important part of the farm bill that helps farmers and ranchers do good things with energy efficiency and also renewables. So those are just two examples of some good things that are in here.
But is it enough to help those farmers who are losing large sums of money?
Well, I don't think that there's really anything in the farm bill that could completely change the dynamic, this big global dynamic that we have. And frankly, the challenges that we're having now with trade are really exacerbating it. What farmers are telling me is that they just need a little bit of certainty and that's why they're so glad that we've got a good farm bill.
What happens if a farm bill doesn't pass the House and Senate by September 30th?
Most likely in that case what would happen is that the Senate and the House would pass an extension. That's happened in the past, but I hope that doesn't happen now. This is a good bill. It's got great bipartisan support, it looks to us. And I think we really need to get it done.
Say, before you go, I have to ask you about the criticism you're taking from your opponents, Richard Painter and Karin Housley, and environmentalists over an amendment you introduced to force completion of a land swap needed for that PolyMet copper nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota. That issue's in the court system. Why not let the legal system play out?
Well, I think that there's some misunderstanding about what this land swap does. You know, all this land swap does is it codifies an Obama administration Forest Service plan for this exchange. It basically says we're going to take about 6600 acres of Forest Service land and we're going to exchange it for 6600, little bit more acres of private land. And it in no way changes any federal environmental law nor does it in any way change or prejudge what is a really important and many, many year long environmental review process, a strenuous environmental review process that the state has.
Is this, as Karin Housley contends, an election-year ploy to garner votes in the Eighth district?
This is a position that I have long held on on mining in northern Minnesota. And as I said, it's following through on something that the Obama administration proposed back, you know, several years ago.
Alright. Senator Tina Smith, thank you for the conversation.
Thank you so much.