It took 15 ballots and concessions to Republican hard-liners for Kevin McCarthy, a native son of California’s Central Valley, to finally claim the House speakership. Now what?
First off, McCarthy must make good on some of those concessions, at least the ones that have been made public. The House returns Monday to approve a package of rules changes, including a critical one that will allow a single member to force a vote to strip McCarthy of the speakership that took four days of balloting for him to win.
Then, the House will turn to passing a series of bills that will be popular with the GOP base but have little chance of becoming law, starting with a measure to repeal funding for an increase in Internal Revenue Service agents.
Republicans' much tougher tasks of raising the debt ceiling, cutting federal spending, and crafting legislation like a new farm bill will come later.
But McCarthy says he learned a lesson from his struggle to win the speakership that could have implications for the farm bill and other measures: Get the party hard-liners on board with legislation before taking it to the floor. In other words, "front load" their input, as he put it.
“We have to think about and work on the bills with a microcosm of the conference before we even start writing (them). And that’s what we really learned here,” McCarthy told reporters after winning the speakership ballot early Saturday.
McCarthy asserted that the rules package the House will consider Monday was “better” than it would have been without the input from his critics. What he didn't say is that his critics continued to demand concessions after it was first released.
McCarthy brushed off concerns about the uncertainty created by the rule change allowing a single member to make a “motion to vacate,” forcing a vote to remove him as speaker. When a reporter asked how confident he was of retaining the speakership, McCarthy shot back, “1,000%.”
One big question facing farm groups and others who want to see legislation enacted in this Congress is what the cost of the speakership battle was when it comes to the process for moving major bills through the House.
According to reports, McCarthy committed to a much more open process for amending bills. Allowing more amendments, including ones that could gut key provisions of a bill, would complicate and slow the process of passing bills.
Meanwhile, members of the hard-right Freedom Caucus could reportedly get a significant share of seats on the House Rules Committee, which determines what amendments get floor votes. The Freedom Caucus doesn't disclose its membership, but a handful of Ag Committee members have identified themselves as part of the group, including Mary Miller of Illinois and Michael Cloud. Both were among the 20 or so initial holdouts on McCarthy during the prolonged balloting.
In 2018, the House GOP leadership worked with the Rules Committee and the then-chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Mike Conaway of Texas, to strictly limit the type of amendments that could get votes on the House floor. McCarthy was the majority leader at the time under then-Speaker Paul Ryan.
The Rules Committee undermined farm bill critics by allowing no votes on crop insurance or commodity programs other than a sugar reform proposal and a sweeping amendment, sure to fail, that would phase out all commodity program and crop insurance subsidies.
If a farm bill reaches the House floor in this Congress, there could be more uncertainty and risk for the bill’s sponsors in terms of the bills.
Randy Russell, a long-time lobbyist on ag policy, said a more open amendment process is closer to the norm for past farm bills, though “substantively different” than what was done in 2018.
“This is nothing new. Germane amendments are offered title by title, debated and voted on. This will be the process used for the 2023 farm bill debate,” Russell said in an email.
Groups supporting the bill will have to defend their provisions on the House floor, which means they have to “educate, advocate and do whip counts … which is exactly what has happened in most House farm bill floor debates,” he said.
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Another veteran lobbyist, who didn't want to be identified, said farm groups will be working "from a better, more informed and more fired up base of support" than than they've had in the past. The lobbyist also said the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest general farm organization, "is much stronger in providing a unifying voice than it has been in the past."
AFBF's vice president of public policy, Sam Kieffer, said his group would be reaching out to the McCarthy critics and likely had members in many of their districts .
“Those 20 (lawmakers), spirited as they may be, were representing the voices from back home, and that is part of the legislative process,” Kieffer told reporters at AFBF's annual meeting Sunday in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“Equally part of the legislative process is having the grassroots, the citizens, exercise their First Amendment right to tell their elected officials how they would like to be governed, and that's where an organization like Farm Bureau comes in," Kieffer said.
McCarthy's lesson about getting hardliners on board with legislation before bringing it to the floor is something his predecessors had to learn with the last two attempts to pass farm bills.
In 2013, a farm bill was voted down over spending on nutrition assistance. In 2018, the bill initially failed because of Freedom Caucus demands for action on immigration and Democratic opposition to the legislation's reforms to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
McCarthy grew up in Bakersfield and still represents the 20th District, which includes portions of Fresno and Tulare. California growers have sought McCarthy's help from time to time, including on water-related issues and payment rules for farm payments.
McCarthy "has a long history of working with the fresh produce industry, and he is intimately familiar with our members and their most pressing issues," the International Fresh Produce Association said in a statement welcoming his elevation to House speaker.
He "has developed close personal relationships with IFPA member leaders that have guided his efforts while in office and will continue to do so as he takes this next step in his political career."
Jamie Johansson, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said McCarthy's district is dominated by two sectors, agriculture and oil production. "He is beholden to those two interests when it comes to going back to his district," Johansson said, speaking on the sidelines of the AFBF meeting.
McCarthy has shown "the ability to bring everybody together to get something done, and that's exactly what we're going to need this year when it comes to a farm bill," said Johansson.
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