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Fewer old hands on House ag panel to write new farm bill

With five dozen races still to be called, Republicans were ahead in House seats in Tuesday’s general elections that also marked the departure of at least four long-time members of the House Agriculture Committee. That means the House panel will be light on farm bill experience when it overhauls U.S. food and agriculture policy next year.

Slightly more than half of the Agriculture Committee members on the general election ballot, 28 of 51, were in Congress when the 2018 farm bill was enacted. Composition of the panel could change further since there always is turnover in membership of House committees at the start of each congressional session. Agriculture Committee leaders speak often of the need to educate newcomers to the complexity and range of farm bills, which include rural development, international food aid, ag research and food safety, as well as the lightning rods of farm subsidies and SNAP.

Rural lawmakers dominate the membership of the Agriculture Committee although the lion’s share of USDA spending is on public nutrition programs such as SNAP, WIC and school lunch. With the increasing concentration of the U.S. population in cities and suburbs, urban lawmakers are taking some of the seats on the committee, particularly on the Democratic side.

Republicans were expected to use their expanded power to hobble President Biden’s climate agenda for agriculture. They have questioned the administrations authority to launch a “climate-smart commodities” pilot program and hinted at constraining USDA spending. The 2014 and 2018 farm policy laws were delayed by GOP proposals for large cuts in SNAP and some analysts a new attempt is likely in 2023.

“For now, I might just say that who controls each chamber may have a big effect on the process but it’s less clear what the impact will be on the final contents of the (farm) bill that becomes law,” said Pat Westhoff, director of the FAPRI think tank. “Hate to get ahead of the election results.” It could be days before the results of all the House and Senate races are clear.

Republicans were leading in three of the seven undecided races involving House Agriculture Committee members — all Democrats — on early Wednesday. Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, led by 35,000 votes against Republican Herschel Walker in a three-way Senate race in Georgia that could go to a runoff on Dec. 6.

As the senior Republican on the committee, Pennsylvania Rep. Glenn Thompson was in line to become House Agriculture chairman if the GOP carries the chamber; Republicans secured 197 of the 218 seats for a majority during ballot-counting overnight. The current chairman, Democrat David Scott, would become the Democratic leader on the committee.

In an incumbent vs. incumbent race, Republican Neal Dunn defeated Democrat Al Lawson, an Agriculture Committee member, by a 3-to-2 margin in a north Florida district. Lawson’s district was dismembered during reapportionment and his home town of Tallahassee was shifted into Dunn’s district.

Also leaving the committee were Democrats Cheri Bustos and Bobby Rush of Illinois and Republicans Rodney Davis of Illinois, Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, Chris Jacobs of New York state and Mayra Flores of Texas. Bustos, Davis, Hartzler and Lawson were long-time members of the panel.

The senior Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, easily won re-election. He was likely to become chairman if the GOP wins control of the Senate and Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow would become the Democratic leader on the committee.

Farm groups seek higher support rates in the 2023 farm bill although it was unclear if additional money was available. The largest farm group, the American Farm Bureau Federation, called for a “unified” bill that handles SNAP and farm supports in the same piece of legislation — the usual framework of the farm bill. “It makes perfect sense that one single bill support the people who produce the food and the people who need assistance accessing nutritious food for their families,” aid AFBF president Zippy Duvall.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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