The House and Senate Agriculture Committees are ready to focus on debating a new farm bill after lawmakers used the newly enacted omnibus funding package to clear their to-do lists. 

But it took several years to pass a farm bill the last time a divided Congress tried to do the job. And like then, the legislation could get caught in a looming showdown over federal spending.

Republicans took control of the House for the first time in four years on Tuesday. The Senate remains under Democratic control. 

The omnibus, which President Joe Biden signed into law Dec. 29, included a five-year reauthorization of EPA’s pesticide registration process; an expansion of child nutrition assistance during summer months; and two bills related to climate and conservation policy, the Growing Climate Solutions Act, which is aimed at accelerating the development of carbon markets, and the SUSTAINS Act, which incentivizes companies and nonprofit organizations to help fund conservation practices. 

All are issues that are under the purview of one or both of the Ag committees. 

“We were very pleased that Growing Climate finally got completely squared away, and then I think what we've done with child nutrition really has made it such that we're going to have a much more seamless transition from the school lunch programs into the summer to take care of young people that simply need the help,” said the senior Republican on the Senate Ag Committee, John Boozman of Arkansas. 

“My staff and Sen. Stabenow’s staff have worked together very well to get some things done,” Boozman told Agri-Pulse. “And so I think we're both excited about going forward and (continuing) our hearings and making sure that the farmers have certainty that they can go to the banks with confidence (and) get the loans that they need.”

A Senate aide said the work on the omnibus required negotiations between the four leaders of both the Senate and House Ag committees, providing them with a test run for producing compromises on the next farm bill.

John Boozeman 2Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.

The Senate Ag Committee plans to resume hearings on the farm bill this year after holding a pair in November and December, Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told Agri-Pulse

“Then we will begin the process of looking at the areas that we want to address, the things we want to solve (and) the funding that's available,” Stabenow said. She likened the bill to a “big Rubik’s cube” that needs to address a range of needs and concerns. 

The House Agriculture Committee, now under GOP control for the first time in four years, will informally begin its hearing process with an unofficial listening session at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg on Saturday. Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., invited all of the holdover committee members to the event as well as any lawmakers who are seeking to join the committee. 

Thompson has promised an aggressive schedule of hearings on the farm bill once the committee is formally organized and populated with new members, a process that could take several weeks. 

How quickly the Senate and House committees can move a bill will initially depend on when the Congressional Budget Office issues new 10-year funding projections for farm programs. The committees use those projections, or baseline, in determining funding in the new legislation. Historically, the new CBO farm bill baseline is issued in the first quarter of the year but it has been significantly delayed in some years. 

A bigger challenge for the Ag committees could be a looming fight over raising the government’s debt ceiling and House GOP efforts to cut federal spending. The government could hit its debt ceiling as soon as July, and GOP conservatives have pledged to use the issue to force Democrats to agree to cuts in spending. One area Republicans are targeting includes the rising cost of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which accounts for most of the farm bill’s cost. 

Bill Hoagland, a senior vice president for the Bipartisan Policy Center and former Senate GOP budget adviser, says the coming budget showdown could make it politically impossible to pass a farm bill in this Congress, pushing the issue until the next Congress.   

He sees striking parallels to 2011, when Republicans took over the House but not the Senate and used a debt ceiling crisis that summer to get President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats to agree to the Budget Control Act, which set up a process for cutting federal spending. 

That process led to the Ag committees proposing $23 billion in cuts in farm bill spending in the fall of 2011. The cuts weren’t enacted until lawmakers finally agreed on a new farm bill in 2014; the bill cut projected SNAP spending by $8 billion. One of the main reasons it took as long as it did to pass the 2014 farm bill is that House conservatives were pushing for much deeper cuts in SNAP. 

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The likely fights this year over government spending and SNAP are “going to complicate the farm bill,” Hoagland. “I just don't know if this doesn’t kick the can on the farm bill until after the presidential elections in 2024,” he said. 

“Clearly, House Republicans are going to want to find savings in the farm bill, and where do you go? You go where the money is,” Hoagland said, referring to SNAP. “That’s going to create some real problems, particularly if we’re in any kind of recession situation.” 

John ThuneSen. John Thune, R-S.D.

But Senate GOP Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters Tuesday that getting a farm bill through a House that Republicans only narrowly control will require getting support from both parties and from all regions of the country. Republicans control just 222 seats this year, 20 fewer than the GOP had in 2011-2012. Democrats will have 213 seats in the 118th Congress. 

“One thing you can't do in the House, at least, is pass a farm bill without the support of members from places in the country (that) typically aren't involved in production agriculture,” Thune, also a longtime Senate Ag Committee member, said. 

Another challenge for the Ag committees this time is finding money to address demands for changes to programs, including increases in commodity program reference prices sought by some farm groups. 

Stabenow, D-Mich., said funding for the farm bill will be limited to what is allocated for existing programs, including the additional money provided by the Inflation Reduction Act.

Thompson has said he wants to consider clawing back money that USDA hasn’t spent from previous stimulus and COVID relief bills. GOP aides, however, told Agri-Pulse USDA officials insist they have plans to spend most of that leftover money ahead of the next farm bill. 

“We're hearing mixed things about what's going to be available” from that funding, Boozman said. 

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