November 10, 2022
After a midterm election that appeared to reinforce America’s cultural divide between urban and rural areas, reaching compromises to craft the 2023 Farm Bill could be more of a challenge, two political pros say.
While Republicans and Democrats from farm states have been able to work together in the past, the fact that there are fewer Democrats representing ag areas will be the “biggest obstacle,” said former Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who chaired or was the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee from 2005-21.
“My farmers up here have gone so hard to the Republican side in the last few elections that I don’t know what it’s going to take for the Democrats to get it back,” Peterson said.
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“It’s a big problem, and if I had an answer I’d be out there promoting it,” he said. “You’ve got guns, abortion, critical race theory, transgender bathrooms – that’s what we hear about out here in rural districts and it works.”
He noted that in his old district, Republican Rep. Michelle Fischbach –who defeated him in 2020 -- won Nov. 8 with 67% of the vote.
“They (Democrats) had a tough time getting anybody to even run in the district,” he said.
A GOP House?
With Republicans expected to hold a thin House majority when all the counting is finished, the closeness of the margin should prompt the two parties to work together on key legislation, including the Farm Bill, Peterson said.
“People are going to try to push (lawmakers) to one side or the other, but let’s work on what we can actually get done and come to a bipartisan agreement on,” Peterson said. “They should be able to back off the crazies in both parties by doing that.”
Food and agriculture consultant Randy Russell, a one-time Reagan administration official, agrees about the need to work toward compromise. He noted that while there is widespread dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, Democratic candidates enjoyed a 2% edge among independents.
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“We are facing a truly divided government,” said Russell, president of Arlington, Va.-based The Russell Group. “If we’re going to get a Farm Bill done, it has to be in a bipartisan fashion … I share Collin’s optimism. Yes, it’s going to be difficult, but it also provides a great opportunity to come up with a compromise.”
Peterson and Russell made their remarks Nov. 9 during a post-election online news conference hosted by North American Agricultural Journalists, a professional organization.
Their comments came as ballots were still being counted across the country to determine majorities in the U.S. House and Senate. Republicans held about a 20-seat edge in the House as of late Nov. 9, while Senate control was hinging on outcomes in Arizona, Nevada and Georgia.
Discussions have begun
Initial discussions on what is due to be the 2023 Farm Bill have already begun at field hearings and producer meetings across the country, although there has yet to be significant legislative proposals or debate.
If the House changes hands, the Agriculture Committee chair will likely be current ranking member Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., who said at the Farm Progress Show in August he’s ready to get legislative work back to normal order with accomplishing an on-time farm bill in 2023.
He also believes the Farm Bill is the one piece of legislation most likely to move in 2023, which also with it brings the opportunity to provide greater oversight of USDA.
Among the bill’s more contentious elements could be programs initiated under the so-called Inflation Reduction Act, which passed in August. The bill included about $40 billion for the USDA for climate-smart agriculture programs, biofuels development, forest restoration work, renewable energy tax credits, conservation technical assistance and rural electric cooperative carbon capture and storage.
Thompson voiced displeasure at the bill this summer, accusing Democrats of “trying to corrupt the Farm Bill process.” He said the bill could end up being a “slush fund” for Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and USDA to throw money at programs without consulting with ag committee members. The Senate Agriculture Committee’s current ranking Republican, Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, also criticized the legislation.
Debate over the bill could also include discussion of a trio of current ag-related bills that have languished in the current Congress, noted Peterson and Russell:
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act by Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., a guest worker program for the agriculture industry that passed the House for the second time in March 2021 but has stalled in the Senate.
The Cattle Price Discovery and Transparency Act, which would set minimum levels of cash-market purchases for packing companies and limit their ability to use alternative marketing formulas to set prices in advance.
The Growing Climate Solutions Act, which would authorize the USDA to set up a third-party verifier program for carbon markets.
“If we’re going to support the growth of private carbon markets, getting the act passed and enacted would be a positive step toward getting third-party certifiers out into the marketplace,” Russell said. “I’m hopeful it will get done.”
Neither Russell nor Peterson expect these bills to gain traction during the lame-duck session, as much of lawmakers’ attention will be focused on passing appropriations bills for the coming year, they said.
Peterson noted that debates over Farm Bill reauthorizations are always contentious; he passed three of them during his tenure, including the 2008 bill that prevailed despite a presidential veto. Peterson said Thompson should get together with Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., the current ag committee chair, and leaders from the Senate Agriculture Committee to find areas of common ground.
“My advice (to Thompson) is to figure out what the Democrats need on nutrition – not what they want but what they need – and try to make that agreement before they start the whole process,” Peterson said.
Nutrition programs are often a stumbling block for lawmakers, he said, but a large increase in nutrition funding during the COVID-19 pandemic is now in the statute “so they don’t have to add any more.
“There will be challenges, but we’ve had those before,” Peterson said. “Hopefully people will learn from some of the lessons of the past. I’m optimistic that we can help get this thing done. We need a new Farm Bill.”
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