Any new Farm Bill must navigate the unruly 2023 House GOP–again

As expected, the 2023 Farm Bill express is not running on time. In fact, it didn’t even leave the station when its chief engineer, Pennsylvania Republican and incoming House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn Thompson, said it would.

That’s no surprise; it’s Congress, after all.

Indeed, it would have been a big surprise had it started on the date Thompson had scheduled, Jan. 7. Instead, he and his 221 Republican colleagues were still slugging it out on the House floor before finally putting Californian Kevin McCarthy–four days and 15 ballots later–into the Speaker’s office.

One Republican House Ag Committee member, Illinoisan Mary Miller, voted with other “Never Kevin” members to deny McCarthy the Speaker’s chair–even as other House members remained glued to theirs–while the drama played out. Miller’s “never,” however, lasted only 11 of the 15 ballots before she joined other “Only Kevin” Republicans to elect McCarthy.

Ag Boss Thompson was not impressed. He later groused to Politico that he had “no idea” for her “not coming on board” for McCarthy and chided her stubborn Freedom Caucus colleagues on the Republican right for “burning daylight” during the bitter, public brawl.

“Every day is a lifetime,” he said, “in a year where you start… behind on the farm bill. So they need to get on board with the team. And we need to go to work.”

All other Ag Committee Republicans stood firm with McCarthy throughout the Speaker fight and now stand firm with Chairman Thompson. They want to get to work after what seems like a long-ago House win last November.

But, as Iowan Randy Feenstra told Politico, the lack of Ag Committee news didn’t mean there was a lack of work. There is “a lot of stuff that’s happening behind the scenes,” he opined without offering one example of what, exactly, anyone had been doing.

His immediate Midwestern neighbor, South Dakotan Dusty Johnson–who was prominent in the television coverage during McCarthy’s election ordeal–took a dimmer view of the Ag Committee’s slow start. “Frankly,” he told Politico, “we’re probably months behind where we need to be.”

He blamed the committee’s former chairman, Democrat David Scott of Georgia, for the delay. “I would say we could have had leadership on the committee in the last two years be a little more aggressive in their timeline.”

Johnson’s jab at now Ranking Member Scott highlights a growing partisan split on what most ag policy experts long said was the most bipartisan committee in Congress. While that may have been true 20 years ago, the last two Farm Bill fights have highlighted deep fissures between Republican and Democratic members and House and Senate Farm Bill writers.

The sticking point on both centered on the Farm Bill’s most expensive and expansive “title,” food assistance programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children program). U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food  programs account for 80 percent of all Farm Bill spending. Forty-one million Americans–92 percent who live below the federal poverty line–receive, on average, $5.45 per day in aid. 

Republicans, both on the ag committees and off, have tried to contain–and even cut–the spending, labeling it “out of control.” Those efforts, however, have only succeeded in delaying the last two Farm Bills.

Despite that dismal record, GOP fiscal hawks–especially the “Never Kevin” faction–are urging House Ag members to cut food aid programs in the 2023 Farm Bill. Seasoned veterans of past Farm Bill fights are publicly warning them not to take up that sure-to-lose fight again.

“Every year, people say, ‘Oh, let’s just get the nutrition [food aid] title out of the bill,” Mary Kay Thatcher, a 31-year, Capitol Hill lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, told an ag trade association in Chicago earlier this month.

“But if we want agriculture to be successful in any farm bill,” Thatcher urged her agbiz audience, “please put a stop to that…”

That’s rock-solid advice for the now-ascendent boat-rockers of the Republican right. There’s no evidence, however, they will follow it.

© 2023 ag comm

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