WASHINGTON — In the four years since Congress enacted the current farm bill, more than 40% of the seats in the House have turned over.
Nearly 200 of the 435 members may know little about the multiyear, far-ranging and sometimes contentious legislation, posing a challenge to House Agriculture Chairman Glenn Thompson as he writes a 2023 farm bill. Thompson, R-Pa., faces a tight timetable because his panel is slated, under an arrangement with the Senate Agriculture Committee, to take the lead on moving legislation before the current farm bill expires Sept. 30.
Interest groups with a stake in the bill talk openly about the many newcomers as they seek to get their messages to lawmakers, even on the House Agriculture Committee. Only nine of the panel’s 27 Republican members, including Thompson, were in the 115th Congress, which produced the 2018 farm bill. House Democrats haven’t yet named their committee roster.
Thompson told the Mayors Alliance to End Childhood Hunger that many House members “have never deliberated or voted on a farm bill. I would argue that we are going to have a significant number of the Agriculture Committee that have never been involved.”
Republicans may have been eyeing that inexperience when the Steering Committee backed Rep. Frank D. Lucas of Oklahoma to return to the panel that he led from 2011 to 2015, and where he helped write the farm bill enacted in early 2014. He was still a committee member for the 2018 bill.
But interest groups note a second challenge this year: Lawmakers will be trying to reauthorize agriculture programs in the first year of the new Congress, in contrast to 2018, when even freshmen had a year of legislative work under their belts before serious work began on the farm bill.
Thompson told the mayors Wednesday that member education is important and that the mayors could provide that by “being at the table to provide information to help in what I see as an evaluation and assessment period. You know the people in your community.”
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a senior member on the House Agriculture Committee, agreed with Thompson.
“It is important that you provide members of both sides of the aisle the facts, what works and what doesn’t,” McGovern told the mayors.
Interest groups are readying meetings in Washington and staff briefings on the Hill to help bridge knowledge gaps.
“We have been trying to think about the full House from Day One and trying to do some work to message to those noncommittee members early about why getting this bill over the finish line is so critical to our membership,” said Anne Thompson, director of the National Corn Growers Association political strategy and political action committee.
“The loss of some of the institutional knowledge that we’re seeing in this new session of Congress really puts the onus back on us to up our game in terms of communications and advocacy, to really create a level of understanding that will be needed to make this a success,” Thompson said, noting that she has tracked the turnover.
She said the corn growers will do outreach to new lawmakers and staffers on the farm bill and other issues important to farmers. The group plans a Jan. 31 staff briefing on concerns about an impending ban by Mexico on imported genetically modified corn that cut U.S. corn sales. Among its many purposes, the farm bill seeks to boost exports and humanitarian food assistance.
Mike Lavender, interim policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said Republican members who haven’t gone through a farm bill will be helped by some members who have agriculture backgrounds or represent districts where agriculture is important to the economy and constituents expect them to be knowledgeable about farm bill issues.
Second-term Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., for example, is an Agriculture Committee member who grew up on a cattle ranch and was previously a deputy chief of staff for a member of the committee.
But the full Congress is far less likely to know much about the farm bill, Lavender said.
Lavender also cited a strength that at least some interest groups have: members living in congressional districts around the country.
“Where we start the education process in building relationships is not necessarily with a D.C. focus but with a focus of making sure the connections in districts are made,” he said, adding that the coalition has more than 130 member organizations with people in nearly every state.
He said the compressed schedule for the farm bill in the current Congress raises the bar for his group to be ready.
“We’re writing the farm bill in the year when new members are entering Congress. In some ways, it adds to the urgency of it,” he said, but building relationships with lawmakers can’t be rushed.
But Lavender said memories of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic will strengthen his organization’s message to new members regardless of their agriculture background. The coalition’s priorities are policies to develop and support local and regional food systems.
He said the empty grocery shelves in the early days of the pandemic and ensuing supply chain problems have raised the profile of food and agriculture issues with a broader range of new lawmakers.
“Members can come from this from their own experiences. Sometimes they surprise you, in a good way,” Lavender said.
At the National Farmers Union, Mike Stranz said the farm bill offers “a periodic national opportunity to have a big conversation about agriculture and the food system. By having a big freshman class and a lot of new people to the farm bill process, it’s just more important that we have that education.”
Stranz, vice president of advocacy, said lawmakers and others involved in earlier farm bills will be important in sharing their experiences with new members on and off the Agriculture Committee. Lucas’ return brings the experience of one of the House’s most senior members. He’s in his 16th term.
But Lucas’ presence is also a reminder of the difficulty the House had passing the last two bills. In both cases, the Republican-led chamber initially rejected bills because of funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. The narrow Republican majority in the current Congress and ambitions to cut spending may put up hurdles to quick passage.
“We’ve got to make sure the education process is expedited but is still done thoroughly. It’ll be a bit more of a challenge, but one that is doable to get the farm bill done this year,” Stranz said.
The National Farmers Union will review its farm bill priorities in early March at its national convention, but Stranz said the list now includes competitive markets, crop insurance and strong farm income programs and dairy policies.
Like Lavender, Stranz said the pandemic has left behind lessons for the public and incoming members about food, farmers and supply chains.
“Since the pandemic, there is a greater understanding and appreciation for the resilience and stability and security of our food supply. I think we’re seeing a greater interest there, and that bodes well for the education process in the coming year,” Stranz said. “The resilience of our food supply is not a theoretical idea. It’s something that was made very real in 2020 and the pandemic.”