November 13, 2018
After months on the campaign trail, Congress returns to Capitol Hill this week with a major legislative to-do list. Among the priorities for Members in the remaining weeks of 2018 will be to finalize the overdue 2018 Farm Bill and fiscal year (FY) 2019 appropriations package that includes food and agriculture spending for the year. With several new Members joining the ranks of the 116th Congress in January 2019, choosing new leaders and committee appointments will also be a must-do before the year ends.
Reaching a deal on a new farm bill will be one of the biggest issues on the legislative agenda in the so-called lame duck session (the post-election day last two months at the end of each two-year Congress). Congressional staff have remained hard at work trying to smooth out the contours of the yet-to-be-negotiated 2018 Farm Bill, but with many legislators away on the campaign trail over the past month, there is still much work to do on the biggest remaining dividing issues. With only 15 legislative days remaining to finalize a new farm bill, the Conference Committee leaders will have to move quickly to reach a deal.
Now that the midterm elections are behind them, the Conference Committee leaders will likely try to reconvene this week – the first time in over a month. The tenor and tone of that meeting will be the biggest indicator of whether or not we get a new farm bill signed into law this year. Although all four conference leaders have stated publicly that getting a farm bill done this year is a top priority, it remains to be seen how serious House and Senate counterparts are at finding a compromise on the stickiest remaining issues – in particular, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program issues (including work requirements), conservation issues (including funding and integrity of the Conservation Stewardship Program), commodity programs (including regional equity and payment limit reform), and creating permanent funding for programs that support underserved farmers (including LAMP, FOTO, and OREI).
Even if House and Senate leaders are able to agree on a farm bill compromise, the threat of a presidential veto could still derail the entire process. President Trump has recently been vociferous about his unwillingness to support any farm bill that does not include stricter work requirements for SNAP recipients, though to date there has been no veto threat.
It appears entirely plausible at this point that, despite the condensed time frame, a new farm bill can negotiated and signed into law during this lame duck period – that is certainly the preferred path of a majority of Congress and of advocacy groups. If, however, the Conference Committee is unable to make progress quickly, the conversation will shift from negotiating a new bill to passing a short or long term extension of the 2014 Farm Bill before the end of the year. The third and most unlikely option would be for no agreement to be reached on a new bill or an extension of the last bill. That third option would have dire consequences for a wide variety of farm programs, including an automatic reversion to outdated commodity programs from the 1938 and 1949 farm bills.
In addition to missing their farm bill deadline, Congress was also unable to pass all of its annual spending bills by the end of September. Unlike the farm bill negotiations, however, Congress did manage to keep the lights on and funding flowing by passing a temporary extension (a “Continuing Resolution”) of FY 2018 spending levels for the remaining spending bills. The Continuing Resolution (CR) expires on December 7, 2018, after which point Congress will either need to pass a new bill or another CR to avoid a shutdown of those agencies. This means that government funding runs out in just 23 days for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and seven other federal departments: State, Homeland Security, Commerce, Transportation, Interior, Justice and Housing and Urban Development.
While nearly all of the differences in the House and Senate agriculture spending bills are rumored to be settled, it’s likely that USDA’s funding will become tied up in more controversial spending debates, such as funding for the Trump Administration’s proposed border wall. Other stumbling blocks that led agriculture appropriators to settle for a CR two months ago included a series of policy riders on issues such as: horse slaughter, genetically engineered salmon, cell-based meat, and e-cigarettes. If, as rumored, those issues are largely settled, it remains within the realm of possibility that the FY 2019 agriculture appropriations bill will make it across the finish line by the end of the year as part of a multi-bill, multi-agency package.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has urged the House and Senate to combine the best portions of each of their bills and get FY 2019 funding enacted. On most sustainable agriculture issues, the Senate-passed bill provided more support. However, the House bill did include higher levels of support for conservation technical assistance, and both bills include additional funding for outreach to farmers of color and Value-Added Producer Grants.
NSAC’s complete funding recommendations for FY 2019 can be found online here.
Even before members of the 116th Congress take their seats on January 3, members have already begun jockeying for leadership positions.
Party leadership nominations kicked off this week with the House Republicans selecting a new House Minority Leader to replace outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). Their chosen nominee, current House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), was announced on November 14.
As for the incoming House majority party, it is widely expected that current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) will cinch the nomination for the next Speaker of the House. The Democratic Conference holds their leadership elections on November 28, and as soon as the Caucus selects a nominee the full House will convene on January 3 to formally elect the next Speaker. Although there are currently no other contenders for the Speaker’s chair, it is still possible that Pelosi could face a competing bid for leadership of the new House.
Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD), current Minority Whip, is running to become the new Majority Leader for the Democrats. Hoyer has been an outspoken critic of the Administration’s recent attempt to move the headquarters of two federal research agencies – the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) – outside of DC. Should Hoyer become the nominee for Majority Leader, it is expected that he will be a helpful ally in the congressional effort to oppose this move that threatens the future of agricultural research.
Other incumbent Democrats seeking leadership positions in the new Congress include: Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and Diana DeGette (D-CO), both of whom are said to by vying for Majority Whip; Representative Cheri Bustos (D-IL), who is seeking the nomination for Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair; and Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) running for the Assistant Majority Leader.
The Senate is likely to see fewer shifts in the next Congress. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will continue on as Senate Majority Leader, however, the number two post has transitioned to Senator John Thune (R-SD). Thune had been serving as Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, but will now replace the term-limited Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), the current Majority Whip. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) beat Nebraska’s Deb Fischer (R-NE) to become the Republican Senate conference vice chair – the first time in eight years that a woman has joined the Senate Republican leadership. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) will continue as Senate Minority Leader.
Following this month’s leadership elections, the structure of the congressional committees will begin to shuffle as well. Committee leadership as well as committee assignments will be reevaluated in both chambers – including key committees for food and farm policymaking. We recently reviewed Election Day impacts on the major agriculture committees.
For ag-vocates, the lame duck session is a key time to check in with your Member of Congress and ask about any potential shifts in their committee roles – or for those with new Members, to do a pulse check on which committees they might be interested in joining.
Whatever the outcome of the big remaining issues for the lame duck session and of the make-up of the incoming Congress in January, NSAC remains committed to working in a bipartisan manner to advance federal policies that provide opportunities to our nation’s family farmers, protect our natural resources, and advance equity in the food and farm systems. For ongoing updates and analysis on the farm bill, appropriations bills, and congressional updates, stay tuned to our blog.