Both chambers of Congress have spent recent weeks in recess, deferring some of the trickiest problems on their to-do lists until they return in mid-September. Funding the government ahead of a September 30 deadline will be the most daunting of these tasks, but there’s another big agenda item that must be confronted sooner rather than later: Lawmakers must also reach a consensus on the major legislation that governs agricultural, conservation, and nutrition policy—including the food insecurity program funding that’s so vital to millions of Americans.
This measure, colloquially known as the farm bill, is renewed roughly every five years. The finalized version of the farm bill is notably bipartisan; like other must-pass pieces of legislation, such as the annual defense authorization measure, it needs to garner support from Republicans and Democrats to make it through both chambers of Congress. But in addition to the typical challenges inherent to writing and approving a measure that is so broad in scope, more recent infighting among the House GOP majority could complicate its passage.
“It’s going to be a Farm Bill August,” Representative Glenn Thompson, the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, told me. (Move over, Hot Girl Summer.)
Thompson said he would return to Washington at some point during the month to work on writing the bill, as well as attend “listening sessions” across the country. The Pennsylvania Republican held several formal forums on the farm bill throughout the spring and early summer, and a spokesperson said that the chairman would be “traveling extensively” during the recess to attend local member events on the measure. Senator Debbie Stabenow, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, also said she and GOP ranking member John Boozman would be working on the bill throughout the August recess.
A significant point of contention will likely be funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which is governed by the farm bill. Additional work requirements were already tacked on to SNAP as part of the deal that raised the debt ceiling this spring, although some hard-right members considered those changes to be insufficient.
The nutrition title of the farm bill has long been one of the more contentious elements of the measure. In 2018, the House passed its version of the farm bill, including steep cuts to SNAP, before both chambers passed a bipartisan version that did not slash funding for food stamps. The nutrition title is also by far the costliest element of the farm bill: In 2018, spending on SNAP amounted to around 77 percent of the $867 billion farm bill. The Congressional Budget Office predicted in May that the 2023 farm bill would cost around $1.5 trillion over 10 years, with SNAP accounting for roughly $1.2 trillion of that amount. This figure will likely be the baseline for the farm bill negotiated in Congress.
“We call it a farm bill, and that is a total misnomer,” said Randy Russell, an agriculture lobbyist whose firm is working on trade promotion and export issues in the current farm bill negotiations. “It’s really a nutrition bill that happens to have some farm provisions in it.”
There are a few reasons for the increase in the CBO baseline, including an update to the guidelines that determine how much a household receives in benefits, as well as an uptick in SNAP recipients. The debt limit bill also included new exemptions for work requirements, even as it raised the age threshold for those requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents, which the CBO projected would cost an additional $2 billion. (Republicans disputed that scoring.)
Despite some of the more contentious elements of the farm bill, members of Congress may soon realize its critical importance to their districts. Because there are relatively few completely rural congressional districts in the United States, the marriage of nutrition programs, conservation efforts, and farming priorities typically ensures a broad coalition of supporters.
Thompson told me that he expected lawmakers would soon begin hearing from stakeholders in their communities about the importance of the farm bill. “Rural communities, the commodity groups, the different farm groups—they’re very active, they’re on Capitol Hill every day,” Thompson said.
The farm bill is notorious for attracting attention from numerous lobbying groups: In 2014, a report by Harvest Public Media and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found that at least 600 companies spent nearly half a billion dollars in lobbying on the farm bill over two years. In 2017 and 2018, more than 500 groups and companies hired lobbyists to advocate for their farm bill priorities, according to OpenSecrets. Thus far in 2023, agriculture has been one of the top issues for companies hiring federal lobbyists.
But difficulties in passing basic funding measures could foreshadow issues with the farm bill, as the House recessed without approving its agriculture appropriations bill; indeed, the House did not even agree on a “rule” to consider the measure on the floor. Of the appropriations bills that fund the government, the agriculture bill is typically considered less controversial, so the inability to find consensus is notable. The current farm bill, like government funding, expires at the end of September.
“The mere fact that we weren’t able to get a rule put together and get support for it to get the bill up—that is not a good sign,” said Russell.
The agriculture appropriations legislation was hamstrung in the House by proposed provisions from conservative lawmakers, including a ban on mail delivery of abortion medication and cuts to the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, which serves around 6.6 million low-income mothers and young children. Moderate Republicans have particularly balked at the inclusion of the measure to bar the mail delivery of mifepristone, the abortion pill. Given its narrow majority in the House, GOP leadership can only afford to lose four votes when attempting to pass a bill along party lines.
Rank-and-file Republicans have also raised concerns about the conservative push to slash funding for the Department of Agriculture. Representative Randy Feenstra, a Republican from Iowa, told Politico that he was “mortified” by some of those proposed cuts to critical programs.
“It’s shocking to me that these members, whose communities benefit, have no idea what they’re doing, or they don’t care,” Stabenow, told me before Congress recessed. “If I were them—since they’re up for reelection next year—I wouldn’t want to be on record voting for that, for deeper cuts. They’re welcome to it, because it will help us take back the House. But if I were them, I wouldn’t want to do it.”
Still, despite the difficulties in passing the agriculture appropriations bill, Thompson said he did not expect amendments making significant cuts to the farm bill to make it out of committee. “On the floor, there might be amendments, but I wouldn’t be supportive of anything like that,” he said. (Due to a change in House rules included in the agreement to elect Kevin McCarthy to the speakership, lawmakers can bring amendments for any legislation to a vote by the full House.)
Lawmakers are unlikely to meet the September 30 deadline for the farm bill, given that negotiations over the legislation will be ongoing throughout the August recess. Congress may need to pass a short-term extension to allow for additional time to negotiate the current farm bill. Absent that action, many of the programs governed by the farm bill would cease to operate, although both SNAP and crop insurance are permanently authorized and would continue even if the farm bill expired.
“I’ve done six farm bills. None of them have been done exactly on time,” said Stabenow, who served on the House Agriculture Committee before being elected to the Senate in 2000. “My goal is to get this done by the end of the calendar year.”
But with the time crunch, the cost, and the need for bipartisan support, it may be tricky for members of Congress to achieve that goal. And there’s no small amount of public pessimism over the bill’s prospects: Recent polling by Purdue University found that 36 percent of farmers surveyed believed it was “very” or “somewhat” unlikely that the measure would even be completed this year.
“We’re trying to figure out how to fund some high priority areas, when you have no new money and when you have a baseline that has grown 73 percent since the last farm bill,” Russell told me, referring to the updated CBO estimate of the 10-year cost of the 2023 farm bill. “Trying to thread the needle in writing a bill that addresses these priority areas with no new money, with a four-seat advantage [in the House], knowing that the bill needs to be bipartisan—that’s a challenge.”