Here's How the New Congress Will Affect Agriculture Conservation

Duane Hovorka
GT Thompson

The results of the 2022 election will shake up the House and Senate Agriculture Committees and change the landscape for consideration of a new Farm Bill in 2023. Although we won’t know the full impact until January or February, when the new Congress will convene and make appointments to the two committees, we already know there will be substantial changes from January 2021 – especially on the House side of the Capitol.

House Agriculture Committee

Following the elections in November, Republicans will regain control of the House of Representatives in January. Republicans will have 222 House members, while Democrats will have 212. The one remaining House seat will be decided by a special election. On February 21, Virginia voters will choose a replacement for Rep. Donald McEachin (D), who passed away in late November.

Democrats went into the November election with a 220-212 House majority. With Republicans now in the majority in the House, they get to pick who chairs each committee.

In December, the House Republican Steering Committee voted to elect Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson (PA-15) to chair the House Agriculture Committee when the new Congress convenes in January. Rep. Thompson represents a rural district in north-central Pennsylvania. He served as Agriculture Committee Ranking Minority Member in 2021 and 2022, and he previously chaired the Agriculture Subcommittee on Forestry, Conservation and Agriculture.

Rep. Thompson has already announced he will hold a series of regional listening sessions around the country, starting with a January 7 listening session at the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

In 2021 and 2022, Rep. David Scott from Georgia chaired the House Agriculture Committee. Democrats voted to select Rep. Scott as Ranking Minority Member on the committee for the coming Congress. Rep. Scott gave soil health a priority during his time as chair.

The loss of politically moderate members could spell trouble for the House Agriculture Committee, which has a long tradition of bipartisan cooperation.

The House Agriculture Committee will also see a big turnover in membership. Eleven members of the 52-member committee retired or lost their election. Representatives Cheri Bustos (D-IL), Chris Jacobs (R-NY), Bobby Rush (D-IL), and Filemon Vela (D-TX) chose not to run for re-election, while Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) ran unsuccessfully for Senate. Representatives Cindy Axne (D-IA), Rod Davis (R-IL), Mayra Flores (R-TX), Al Lawson Jr. (D-FL), Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), and Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ) all lost their seats in the primary or general election.

Rep. Julia Letlow (R-LA) left the Agriculture Committee in May to take a seat on the Appropriations Committee. Rep. Anthony Delgado (D-NY) left Congress in May 2022 to become Lt. Governor of New York; he was replaced on the committee by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH). Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R-MN) passed away in February 2022 and was replaced by Rep. Brad Finstad (R-MN), who won the special election to fill Hagedorn’s seat.

The turnover in committee membership has been especially acute among politically moderate members. That includes members like Democrats Cheri Bustos, Filemon Vela, Tom O’Halleran and Cindy Axne, and Republicans Chris Jacobs, Rodney Davis and Mayra Flores. If they are replaced by members who take a much more party-line approach, that could spell trouble for a committee that has a long tradition of bipartisan cooperation.

The League’s focus for the new Farm Bill is on conservation programs that are based on voluntary incentives for farmers and ranchers. These voluntary programs are popular with both Republicans and Democrats, and our related proposals often win broad bipartisan support. In other parts of the Farm Bill – like the nutrition programs that account for more than three-quarters of Farm Bill spending – the partisan divide is often more apparent.

When Congress reorganizes in January, more committee members could choose to leave Agriculture to take a seat on other committees. With Agriculture set to write a new Farm Bill in 2023, expect to see a lot of interest in the dozen or so committee seats that will be open in January.

Senate Agriculture Committee

On the Senate side, the Agriculture Committee should see fewer changes. With the last Senate evenly divided between 50 Republicans and 48 Democrats, plus two independents who caucused with Democrats, the Senate Agriculture Committee had 11 Republicans and 11 Democrats. Senator Debbie Stabenow has chaired the committee because Vice President Kamala Harris, a Democrat, can cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate.

Senator Krysten Sinema’s decision to leave the Democratic Party and register as an Independent throws some uncertainty on the balance of power for the new Senate Agriculture Committee.

In November and December, Democrats won enough Senate seats to hold a 51-49 majority. That meant Senator Stabenow would remain committee chair, and the Democrats would get to have one more seat than Republicans on the Agriculture Committee. However, Arizona Senator Krysten Sinema’s decision to leave the Democratic Party and register as an Independent throws some uncertainty on the situation. Either way, Senator Stabenow is expected to remain Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Democrats may still get one more seat than Republicans on the committee.

What is unlikely to change much is the makeup of the committee. All 11 Republicans on the committee will return to Congress in 2023, including current Ranking Member Senator John Boozman (R-AR). Only one Democrat retired (Senator Patrick Leahy from Vermont), so 10 of the 11 Democrats now on the committee will likewise return to Congress in 2023.

Although Senators do sometimes leave the committee, with Congress poised to write a new Farm Bill in 2023, expect most Senators to stay put. The only change could be the addition of one or two Democrats to the committee.

The Izaak Walton League works with Republicans, Democrats and Independents, and we always seek broad bipartisan support for our ag policy priorities. League members and supporters can play a crucial role by reaching out to their members of Congress by letter, phone, email, or in-person meeting. You can stay informed on agriculture issues that affect our soil, air, woods, waters, wildlife, climate and food by signing up for our free "Soil Matters" e-newsletter.

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Top photo: Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson, who will chair the House Agriculture Committee for the 118th Congress.

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