How the Current Political Environment in Congress Impacts the New Farm Bill

At this time, it is becoming increasingly clear that Congress will not be able to complete a new 5-year Farm Bill before the end of 2023.  Several provisions of the current Farm Bill expired on September 30, yet most of the major commodity safety net programs like ARC/PLC, marketing loans, and the dairy and sugar programs will expire at the end of the year or conclusion of the specific crop’s marketing year.  So, the “real” deadline for either an extension of the current bill or a new bill, is early January.  It is at this point that program expirations will begin to trigger USDA having to implement “permanent farm law” from the 1938 and 1949 Acts.

The challenges to Congress completing a new Farm Bill in the next few months are substantial, including 1) how to identify additional budget resources to strengthen the safety net and make other enhancements needed across multiple titles of the bill; 2) policy differences between crops and/or regions on how to enhance the safety net; 3) whether to place further restrictions or limits on the nutrition and feeding assistance programs; 4) competing priorities with other legislation Congress must address by year-end; and 5) election year politics that will begin in earnest next year.

Before the Agriculture Committees can complete their work on drafting a new Farm Bill for consideration by the full House and Senate, the committee leadership needs direction on if/how much additional budget will be available, and then what the timeline is for consideration in the House and Senate.  At this point, neither of these two questions have been addressed by Congressional leadership.

As of this writing, the most glaring obstacle is the ongoing challenge for House Republicans to elect a Speaker for the U.S. House.  Since the removal of Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as Speaker, none of the announced candidates for Speaker have been able to unite their Republicans colleagues with the necessary 217 votes for Speaker.  Until this is resolved, most legislative business in the House is at a standstill.  Once a new Speaker is elected, the pressing legislative business will focus on how to help address the ongoing military and humanitarian needs in the Middle East and Ukraine, completing the annual appropriations/funding bills for Federal departments/agencies.  Current stop-gap funding expires on November 17, and it will likely take the remainder of the year to complete the funding process.  In addition, the annual Defense Authorization bill must be reconciled between the House and Senate for completion.

Depending on who is ultimately elected as Speaker, this person may have a very different perspective on the Farm Bill and its importance, which could bring an additional set of challenges.  Rep. McCarthy is a longtime supporter of agriculture and the Farm Bill and represents an agricultural-heavy district in California.

The very narrow margin of the Republican majority in the House (only 4 votes) means any Farm Bill will ultimately need to be bipartisan to move forward, and thus far this Congress there have been few instances of compromise.  In the Senate, the challenge remains a divergent view between Republican leaders on the need to strengthen the farm safety net while Democrat leaders seem focused on protecting status quo for the nutrition programs without investing new resources into the farmer-focused areas of the Farm Bill.

At this time, an extension of the current Farm Bill seems necessary by yearend, and the question is whether this will be a long-term extension of one or two years, or a short-term extension with the hope and goal of completing the new Farm Bill before spring planting season.  Despite these ongoing political challenges in Congress, and regardless of the length of any extension, the focus of farmers, ranchers, agribusinesses, and all stakeholders in agriculture should be on continuing to educate Members of Congress and their staff about the real-world challenges facing production agriculture today and the need for stable, sound policy to help sustain and grow our agriculture economy.

Figure 1 below provides a historical context on the length of time to complete previous Farm Bills from the approval by the Agriculture Committees to the bill being signed into law: