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Closely split Congress could bode well for farm bill

Two agricultural policy lobbyists – former Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Randy Russell, a long-time Republican staffer and advocate – say the the closely-divided Congress after the midterms may bode well for replacing the federal farm bill in 2023.

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Former Rep. Collin Peterson thinks it bodes well for a new farm bill that Congress will be a close split of Republicans and Democrats. Photo taken September 2021 at Big Iron Farm Show in West Fargo.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek file photo
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WASHINGTON, D.C. — A closely divided Congress in the wake of the 2022 midterm elections may bode well toward passage of a new farm bill in 2023.

That’s the opinion of former U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a former chairman and ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, and long-time Republican staffer and advocate Randy Russell. Peterson and Russell spoke on Nov. 9, 2022, via videoconference to members of the North American Agricultural Journalists. Both said there were few significant losses by members of agriculture committees in the U.S. House and Senate.

Peterson, who lives at Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, served in Congress as the Seventh District Representative from 1991 to 2021, founded the Peterson Group, and works with Combest, Sell & Associates, another agricultural advocacy firm.

A man in a suit smiles at the camera
Randy Russell
Courtesy / The Russell Group

Russel is president and partner of The Russell Group, a Washington, D.C., area agricultural and food consulting firm with Republican credentials. Russell served in agricultural posts inside and outside of agriculture, including chief of staff for Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block, deputy assistant secretary for economics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and vice president for agriculture and trade policy at the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. One early career stop was on the staff of former U.S. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, R-Minn.

Getting it done

Russell noted that farm bills often take a year or two to pass, beyond their expiration dates, so it wouldn’t be too surprising if a new bill due in 2023 was delayed. He said one factor favoring passage before the end of the year is that Rep. Glenn “G.T.” Thompson, R-Pa. — the likely chairman of the House Agriculture Committee in a Republican-led House — will want it passed.

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“He is going to want to get a farm bill done” on his watch, Russell said of Thompson. Russell said it was too soon to say who will have control in the Senate and who will hold the gavel in the Senate Agriculture Committee. He said that Republicans are likely to take the House, and the difference of a five- or 10-seat majority won’t be that significant.

Both Peterson and Russell said that diminishing margins between the parties could strengthen leaders who may want compromise and force farm bill advocates to listen to people in the other party to get them passed.

Peterson said that if the Republicans regain control, they need to immediately sit down with current chairman Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., to see what Democrats “need — not want” to get a farm bill passed. Peterson said he sees no meaningful opposition to Scott taking his leadership role of ranking minority leader on the committee.

Peterson said if the parties have to work together to get the bill passed, perhaps they’ll compromise earlier on what they “need” versus what they “want” for nutrition or climate policies.

Both said the balance in the Senate may come down to whether Herschel Walker, the Republican, wins a seat in a Dec. 6, 2022, runoff election with Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Peterson said it isn’t clear whether Walker would want a position on the ag committee, if elected.

Independent shift

Russell said he thought it significant that exit polls in the midterms indicated 70% of voters are either “dissatisfied or mad” at the state of the country, Russell said, but results show they voted for the status quo. He said independent voters moved toward Democrats.

Peterson said he sees no action before the end of the year on the Farm Worker Modernization Act or a Growing Climate Solutions Act. Russell agreed, but noted incumbent Reps. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., and Don Bacon R-Neb., are two House sponsors. Both won re-election.

“If we’re going to support the growth of private carbon markets, getting the Growing Climate Solutions Act passed and enacted is a very positive step to getting third-party certifiers out in the marketplace, so that we can certify and verify credits that are generated on the private market side,” he said.

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Nutrition’s role

Nutrition will be the biggest stumbling block for a new farm bill, Peterson said.

“My advice to (Reps.) G.T. Thompson and Kevin McCarthy and others in the House will be to figure out what Democrats need on nutrition — not what they what they want,” Peterson said. He said increases in nutrition support may need changes, as there were in frauds in Minnesota “because there weren’t the right kind of guardrails on it.” He said many Republicans believe the “climate-smart” policies are boondoggles.

Russell believes Congress before the end of the year will vote to approve Doug McKalip, nominee for chief ag negotiator with the Office of U.S. Trade Representative, and Alexis Taylor as undersecretary of agriculture and trade and foreign agriculture affairs. Neither Russell nor Peterson thought a bill establishing a special investigator on livestock and cattle marketing bills would be passed before the end of the year, but would come into play in the 2023 farm bill.

Peterson said the Republican Study Group and other conservatives want to push conservative agendas, including eliminating the sugar program and adding work requirements on food stamps. He said the Republicans were slated to win 40 to 50 seats in the House and only gained about five. He said the vote results strengthens the hand of House leaders in pushing for bipartisan solutions over nutrition, which accounts for 84% of farm bill spending.

Peterson thinks Republicans may try to investigate Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack for what some believe is improper spending off Commodity Credit Corp. funds for food programs during COVID. Peterson, a Democrat, said the Trump administration used the funds liberally as well.

“I don’t think (the Biden administration) would have been doing what they’re doing if Trump wouldn’t have shown the way,” Peterson said. He predicted in a Republican-led House there will be an “attempt to interject Congress into the CCC process.”

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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