A striking majority of poll respondents oppose congressional Republicans’ plans to repurpose conservation funding for non-climate-related farm bill programs.
In a poll released exclusively to The Hill on Tuesday, voters across six leading agriculture states opposed those plans by a ratio of 3 to 1.
And despite the fact that the GOP is the party pushing to repurpose the conservation funds, likely Republican voters opposed doing so by a factor of 2 to 1.
“There aren’t many climate solutions that have broader support from voters than the work America’s farmers and ranchers are doing voluntarily on their land,” said Andrew Mills, director of the National Audubon Society Action Fund, one of the nonprofits that commissioned the poll.
The survey results “overwhelming validate this support,” Mills added.
The funds in question were passed as part of the Democrats’ 2022 climate and health care stimulus package, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which earmarked nearly $20 billion to pour much-needed cash into popular — and massively oversubscribed — voluntary federal programs that pay for farmers to adapt their lands to become more resilient in the face of extreme weather.
But Republicans and Democrats are now struggling over that money amid the slow collapse of the farm bill, which subsidizes vast swaths of the American food system.
As a deadlocked Congress struggles with how to pass the mammoth $1.5 trillion bill — which expired without being renewed in early October — Republicans are pushing to repurpose the new climate and conservation funding to patch gaps in that massive budget.
The programs that money is currently being put toward — like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) — are popular across the political spectrum.
Four out of five poll respondents said they supported incentives and voluntary programs for farmers and other landowners “to conserve agricultural lands, wildlife habitat, wetlands and other natural areas.”
Among Republican poll respondents, that number was only slightly lower — 75 percent supported CSP and EQIP.
And more than 70 percent of respondents supported incentives for “climate-smart” agriculture — though the understanding of what that term means varies wildly depending on who is saying it, and the poll does not specify.
Republican leaders like Agriculture Committee Chair Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson (Pa.) have reportedly proposed taking the conservation money and using it for non-conservation purposes instead — for example, to fund increased subsidies for certain farmers.
With no new revenue incoming for the farm bill, Thompson told Politico that the team negotiating the bill would have to find existing line items to cut from it “because there is a real need for a safety net, for research, for expanded trade tools.”
The reported proposal was to slash conservation funding in the bill itself as part of a broader package of $50 billion in cuts — which include reductions in food aid — and put that money into other agricultural programs.
In a proposal leaked earlier this month, Thompson had also suggested taking the $20 billion in conservation funding passed under the IRA and using it to offer higher benchmark subsidies — or “reference prices” — to growers of commodities like corn, cotton and soy.
When market prices fall below the reference price, commodity growers get a check from the government to make up the loss — and commodity growers have long complained that reference prices are now so far below market prices that they’re taking losses anyway.
Raising those prices — and getting more money into the pockets of commodity growers — was one of Thompson’s three top priorities for this farm bill.
The problem, as he said in August, was finding the cash to do so — an endeavor he compared to “lifting rocks.”
But both mid-sized farmers and environmental activists argue that such a reference price increase — particularly at the price of the conservation programs — would redirect funds from all farmers to just a few.
According to a September report by the Environmental Working Group, if reference prices were increased, just 6,000 of the nation’s 2 million farmers — less than 0.3 percent of the total — would receive increased funding.
Meanwhile, the conservation programs are ailing. While funding to raise the money available to farmers for conservation projects increased in the 2018 farm bill, the actual amount of land covered fell, according to the American Farm Bureau.
On Monday, every Democrat in the House urged Thompson not to appropriate conservation funding for other purposes.
“Three out of four [Conservation Stewardship Program] applicants are turned away due to inadequate funding; moving the IRA funds from conservation would be denying farmers the support they need and want,” they wrote.
Rep. Nikki Budzinski (D-Ill.) told Politico that Democrats were a “‘united front’ to protect ‘100 percent’ of the IRA dollars in the conservation title.”
On an ironic note, one reason that budgetary gaps in the farm bill are growing is because of expensive damage caused by global warming: in particular, the expensive and protracted onslaught of droughts, storms and floods as fossil fuel and agricultural emissions heat up the planet.
Heavy rains have wiped out entire crops in an afternoon; intense heat has killed dairy cattle, sickened farm workers and forced some operations to sow and harvest by night; and droughts has left nearly three-quarters of the nation’s farmers facing reduced crop yields.
Insurance payouts to farmers after extreme weather have gone up fivefold since the early 2000s, and agricultural disasters cost the nation’s farmers $21.5 billion last year alone, according to Grist. (Crop insurance is a key part of the farm bill omnibus.)
A rise in spending for food aid under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — demand for which surged during the COVID-19 pandemic — is another major cause of the shortfall.
More than 80 percent of the farm bill goes to SNAP funding, which — because it subsidizes the purchase of food — doubles as a back-door subsidy to the nation’s farmers.
Republicans pushed to cut this funding in the 2014 and 2018 farm bills, and Thompson’s leaked proposal also incorporates $30 billion in cuts to SNAP.
Conservatives have argued that many who get SNAP payments don’t need them or are using them for purposes they consider frivolous.
“My goal is preservation [of aid] for those truly in need,” Thompson said in a June hearing, according to agriculture magazine Successful Farming.
Thompson added that the bill should “foster self-sufficiency,” and one witness called for “commonsense restrictions on SNAP purchases,” which included banning the use of funds on soda.
These efforts would “jeopardize … the passage of a bipartisan farm bill,” congressional Democrats wrote to then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in August.
The House did ultimately fail to pass the legislation before the 2018 version expired — though the programs the bill supports will continue through the end of the year.
And the next iteration of the farm bill, which is supposed to be passed every five years to guarantee consistent coverage to the programs that support the nation’s food system, appears to face a tough road.
Following McCarthy’s removal from the Speakership, the House has been stuck at a standstill for weeks as Republicans have failed to marshal the necessary majority to elect a new leader for the chamber.
Republicans and Democrats also remain at odds over the big annual omnibus funding bills that keep the government running — and the contents of the farm bill itself, including the SNAP and conservation funding.
“This is a terrible time to do a farm bill,” Texas A&M professor Joe Outlaw told Maryland Matters earlier this month.