The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations is one of the many programs that will be affected by the reauthorization of the national Farm Bill. Photo: Bob Nichols / U.S. Department of Agriculture

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs moves quickly on pro-tribal farm bill

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is moving quickly to ensure the Farm Bill doesn't leave tribal communities behind.

The Republican and Democratic leaders of the panel introduced S.2804, the Cultivating Resources, Opportunity, Prosperity and Sustainability (CROPS) for Indian Country Act, just last week. The measure is already being considered at a business meeting on Wednesday so it's taking a key step forward in the legislative process.

"Food and agricultural production is a driving force for many rural tribal economies,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the chairman of the committee. He said the measure brings tribal self-governance to the Department of Agriculture, some 30 years after the program took a hold in Indian Country.

“Our legislation supports the growing Native agribusiness industry by expanding resources for Indian Country’s producers, improving the partnership between USDA and Indian tribes, and enhancing tribal self-governance over forestry and nutrition programs," Hoeven added. "Tribal leaders know that local decision-making often produces the best results. This legislation will expand access to valuable USDA programs and enable tribes to more efficiently develop and manage these agricultural programs and services for their communities.”

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the committee's vice chairman, echoed that message. He is co-sponsoring the CROPS Act, which he said would ensure Indian Country is at the table as Congress renews the Farm Bill this year.

“Once every five years, Congress sets the course for federal nutrition, agricultural, and conservation policies in the Farm Bill reauthorization," Udall said. "But for too long, Indian Country has been left out of this process."

"As the Vice Chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, I strongly believe that decisions made by tribes for tribes produce the best outcomes for Native families – especially when it comes to issues of food, agriculture, and community development,” Udall continued. “This bipartisan bill reflects Indian Country’s priorities, and is a step in the right direction toward more robust engagement with tribes and Native stakeholders. Native Americans deserve a Farm Bill that will support tribal families, farmers and ranchers, and opportunity across Indian Country.”

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The cooperative spirit isn't being seen elsewhere on Capitol Hill as Republicans in the House take up their version of the Farm Bill this week. H.R.2, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act, will be debated pursuant to a rule that's being finalized on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to the Majority Leader's schedule.

H.R.2 includes Indian Country provisions but it's not as pro-tribal, as extensive, or as broadly supported, as S.2804. The House measure also contains some controversial changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that tribal families rely on for food stamps and other benefits.

"It is critical to have as many voices as possible at the table to carry forward a strong message that the 2018 Farm Bill must allow for tribal parity and access to help build-up strong and vibrant Native communities through food and agriculture," the Native Farm Bill Coalition said in a statement as tribal leaders met in Washington, D.C., last week to discuss ways to advance their priorities.

Democrats say H.R.2 will "dismantle" SNAP by making it harder for Native Americans and low-income people and their families to obtain benefits. Even some Republicans have had questions about the measure, prompting party leaders to make a big push for passage, which is anticipated by the end of the week.

"We should be empowering Americans to reach their full potential," Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) said in a post on Twitter on Monday. Ryan is the outgoing Speaker of the House.

Though the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs did not hold a hearing on S.2804, the CROPS Act, Hoeven and Udall took testimony on agricultural issues in January. The panel also hosted a roundtable to solicit input from tribal stakeholders.

“We applaud Senators Hoeven and Udall for their proactive leadership in this reauthorization of the Farm Bill and for doing all that they can to ensure that Native people have the tools and resources needed to become significant contributors to the agricultural base of the nation and the world once again,” said Carrie Billy, the president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. She said tribal colleges are among the many entities in Indian Country that will benefit from passage of S.2804.

With the CROPS Act poised for movement on Wednesday, the goal is for it be included in the Senate's version of the Farm Bill. The Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry are vowing to work in cooperation as they craft the legislation.

"We're working together as quickly as possible to produce a bipartisan bill that can pass the Senate and be enacted into law,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), the chairman of the panel, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), the ranking member, said in an April 12 statement.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Business Meeting to Consider S. 1400 & S. 2804 (May 16, 2018)

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