The U.S. Senate and House are currently working on reauthorizing the Farm Bill. The Senate reconvened this week to resume floor debate and vote on proposed amendments to the legislation. The Senate will hold a cloture vote on Thursday, June 6. If the bill clears the 60-vote threshold, a Senate vote on final passage could come as soon as Monday, June 10. The House is expected to consider their version of the bill during the week of June 17. If the legislation passes both chambers according to schedule, a conference committee could produce a final bill prior to the August recess.

Both versions of the Farm Bill address a number of environmental concerns; some are noncontroversial and some could face debate and amendments. Key environmental provisions include:

  • Endangered Species Act: Both houses are considering amendments that would curtail the Endangered Species program, including one in the Senate seeking to delay the listing of the lesser prairie chicken. These amendments are being discouraged by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and floor leader for the Farm Bill, but they may receive a more favorable outcome in the House.
  • NEPA Exclusions for Beetle Mitigation: A contentious House provision would allow for National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) exclusions to mitigate against beetle infestations. The provision would permit the Secretary of Agriculture to designate critical forest thinning projects as exempt from NEPA review as part of beetle mitigation efforts.
  • GMO Rider: Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) filed an amendment to overturn the genetically modified crop rider passed by Congress earlier this year as part of the Continuing Appropriations Bill. As passed, the rider gives the USDA the authority to overrule a court and allow the continued planting of genetically modified crops (GMOs). Merkley's amendment to the Farm Bill would reverse the rider and allow courts to ban such crops based upon environmental concerns.
  • Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations: One environmental issue not expected to be resolved is that of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) regulated under the Clean Water Act (CWA). Environmentalists complain that the program only addresses surface water and not groundwater which they believe leads to undocumented contamination. Amendments have been filed and debate is likely on this issue, but since the program is run by the EPA and not USDA it is unlikely to be significantly resolved through this year's Farm Bill.
  • Pesticide Application Under FIFRA: Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) withdrew an amendment during committee markup that would have clarified that applications of pesticides in compliance with the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) in, over or near water shall not also be required to have a permit under the CWA's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). Sens. Kay Hagan (D-NC) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) introduced an amendment of the same nature for consideration during floor debate, although it is not clear whether it will receive a vote. Language codifying the same clarification as the Roberts-Hagan-Crapo amendment was included in the version of the Farm Bill which passed the House Agriculture Committee on May 15.
  • FLTFA Reauthorization: Both chambers are considering standalone bills to permanently reauthorize the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act (FLTFA), which allows the federal government to acquire and conserve sensitive wildlife habitats using proceeds from sales of lower-value federal lands. This is a bipartisan process with an amendment pending in the Senate and legislation introduced in the House.

Overall, the Farm Bill will see many environmental amendments offered, with fewer debated and even fewer enacted into law. However, debate on environmental provisions during the course of the Farm Bill consideration can sometimes impact policy through the federal agencies, even if those provisions are not ultimately passed.