The coming fight to deregulate farms

Anger in the countryside will force Trump, GOP to keep their promises on agriculture policy.

CREDIT: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci, File
CREDIT: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci, File

Donald Trump’s win gives Republicans a fresh chance to weaken or outright rescind a wide swathe of President Obama’s environmental and financial regulations. Beyond the unwinding of landmark Wall Street reforms, worker protections, and climate treaties, the GOP is likely to prioritize agricultural rules despised by farmers and ranchers.

Though the current Farm Bill is not yet three years old, agriculture-focused lawmakers are bent on starting in on a new package in 2017. With Republicans in full control of federal policymaking, thanks to an election in which its new leader relied heavily on rural voters for his upset win, the weather is gloomy for supporters of food stamps and Obama-era agricultural reforms.

“Farmers, ranchers, and the people of rural America feel like they have been under attack over the past several years, and I believe it had a huge impact on how they responded in the last presidential election,” said Chuck Conner, a Trump adviser and top candidate to head the Department of Agriculture (USDA) in his cabinet, at the Farm Foundation Forum in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.

“They responded because they felt like they were under attack, from the heavy hand of the [Environmental Protection Agency], to the unfounded criticisms of consumers who have little knowledge, despite their tomato-growing, of how food is produced in America today.”

Agriculture policy in Donald Trump’s regime is slightly easier to forecast than other areas because his party’s agenda has been clear and stable for years — and because the political dynamics of the Farm Bill lend themselves to horse-trading.


The new regime is positioned to do almost anything it wishes legislatively, but the complex coalition politics of the Farm Bill have traditionally offered a check on radical swings in policy. The decades-old linking of food stamps and other nutrition policies with crop insurance and other agriculture industry systems is key to that stability.

During the last Farm Bill debate in 2014, Republicans moved to sever nutrition policy from agriculture — potentially exposing the nation’s poorest to the kinds of massive cuts, paranoiac ideas about benefits fraud, and block-granting that the newly emboldened conservative majorities are likely to seek.

At a glance, Trump’s victory seems likely to grant a wide range of longstanding right-wing wishes on the Farm Bill. But splitting the part conservatives dislike from the part they favor is in fact unlikely in the new Trump-Ryan-McConnell hegemony, two agriculture policy experts from opposite ideological camps agreed on Wednesday.

“The agriculture community has little interest in slogging through another Farm Bill debate without working closely with our colleagues in the nutrition community,” Trump ally Conner said Wednesday.

Fellow panelist Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group was less oblique. “It is more likely that I will be the next secretary of Agriculture than that we’ll split the farm bill,” Faber, whose left-leaning group is usually at odds with Conner’s National Council of Farmer Cooperatives on policy issues, said to chuckles from the farm policy wonks in attendance.

If the men are sanguine about the doomsday scenario of a divided Farm Bill, it’s probably in part because Republicans don’t need to split the thing to get what they want on food stamps. Last time around, the House passed a split version of the bill that would have slashed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) by about $40 billion over a decade.


Those changes would have kicked over 6 million Americans off of the most effective anti-hunger program in the nation. And they pale in comparison to the cuts that safety net hawks proposed in last year’s House budget: $150 billion less for SNAP over the next decade, and converting the program’s funding into block grants that could be raided for other purposes by governors desperate to balance their budgets without raising taxes.

That approach has broad support among Republicans, including key Texas congressman Mike Conaway, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee. If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is willing to dissolve the filibuster to cram legislation past the minority Democrats, the party could have its way with the program.

But that’s not the lesson Republicans should take from the wave of rural counties that went hard for Trump this fall, Conner said. He predicts the party will instead lay its sights on the network of environmental protections and conservation regulations that are embedded in the farm bill.

“Everything we’re hearing out there from farmers is they recognize there is a historical coalition here between SNAP recipients and farm programs. They understand you couldn’t pass a SNAP bill without the farm programs and you couldn’t pass the farm programs without SNAP,” Conner told reporters Wednesday.

Conner, who refused to say if he’s been asked to join Trump’s cabinet, believes the rural anger at distant regulators will guide the administration and Congress alike in the new year. Wonky, small, and important pieces of the Obama environmental legacy, such as tighter rules about how farmers manage runoff into the watershed, will likely fall as a result — regardless of how aggressive Ryan and McConnell choose to be on food stamps.

But it shouldn’t be that way, Faber said.

“It’s worth remembering that the counties that overwhelmingly voted for president-elect Trump also suffer from some of the highest levels of food insecurity in the country,” he said. “They are among the counties that have the highest levels of SNAP participation [and] the most significant water quality challenges in the country. If the next administration’s going to serve all Americans, including the many rural Americans who voted for President-elect Trump, it’s important we support our hunger programs and that we do more to make sure the water we drink is as safe as the food we eat.”