OPINION | MARK PRYOR: Find consensus

The reality of the 2023 Farm Bill

FILE - Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., speaks at a political rally at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Ark., Oct. 6, 2014. The National Prayer Breakfast, one of the most visible and long-standing events that brings religion and politics together in Washington, is splitting from the private religious group that had overseen it for decades, due to concerns the gathering had become too divisive. The organizer and host for this year's breakfast, scheduled for Thursday, will be the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, headed by former Sen. Mark Pryor. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)
FILE - Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., speaks at a political rally at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Ark., Oct. 6, 2014. The National Prayer Breakfast, one of the most visible and long-standing events that brings religion and politics together in Washington, is splitting from the private religious group that had overseen it for decades, due to concerns the gathering had become too divisive. The organizer and host for this year's breakfast, scheduled for Thursday, will be the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, headed by former Sen. Mark Pryor. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)


Wouldn't it be great if Congress could pass a bill that finds bipartisan consensus on a range of important issues? Wouldn't it be great if those issues could include meaningful accomplishments by helping thousands of small businesses, reducing our trade imbalance through increasing American exports, establishing important policies around climate change, providing some relief for those Americans most in need, and making sure rural America is not left behind?

This may sound like pie in the sky, but it is a reality called the 2023 Farm Bill. This legislation goes way beyond farming and agriculture, which is incredibly important in its own right since it contributes $1.3 trillion and 21 million jobs to the U.S. economy. Farming is dominated by small businesses whose products provide food for the table, fiber for clothing and lumber for shelter, thereby benefiting every single American. These are American jobs that plant, care for, harvest and transport items connected to American soil into the global economy. Food and agricultural products represent six of our 10 largest net export categories.

Agriculture continues to change and is becoming more environmentally friendly, more reliant on technology, more organic, more locally grown, more dependent on foreign labor, and more subject to disruption due to an increasingly complex supply chain. All of these trends will be addressed in the farm bill.

One surprising fact is that less than 10 percent of the quinquennial farm bill will focus on agricultural commodities. This bill is expected to include nutrition assistance for over 40 million Americans in over 20 million households, and will definitely involve debates on how to make this more efficient and how to best reduce fraud. Food inflation and the increasing cost of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) will also be hotly discussed. These debates happen every five years and are good and necessary. A robust legislative process, which can be rather bumpy, tends to blend good ideas to reach consensus.

The farm bill is expected to address the wide range of policies around preserving the nation's land and water resources, known as "conservation," that are generally good for the planet and the farmer. This will be Congress' most comprehensive legislation to improve wildlife habitat, protect wetlands, ensure water abundance and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Why? Because our farmers are the best stewards of the land, and their crops and forests absorb carbon. The tropical rain forests are sometimes called "the lungs of the planet," but here in the United States we have vast forests that perform the same function, and the National Forest Service is housed in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so that means it is in the farm bill.

Rural America never would have received electricity if the government had not passed the Rural Electrification Act in the 1930s. Likewise, today, most of rural America would perpetually lag in broadband and basic infrastructure if it were not for some federal assistance provided by the Farm Bill. Some of this is in the form of grants, but most comes via loans and other creative financing that allow smaller and remote communities ways to pay for what they need.

You can readily see how Democrats and Republicans will need to come together to work through these many policies to benefit all Americans, but there are many other aspects that will be included.

Keeping our food supply domestic and safe is a national security matter. Likewise, lessening our dependence on foreign energy, often from unfriendly countries, means growing our own fuel will only increase in importance. Many policymakers have expressed concerns over Chinese ownership of U.S. farmland. Again, expect all of this to be addressed in the Farm Bill.

Some policies will focus on the land itself, like preventing the devastating wildfires in the Western states or supporting the burgeoning movement called "regenerative agriculture" where growers use a variety of techniques to strengthen biodiversity, sustainability and decrease the use of chemicals.

Let us not forget that America leads the world in research, and our land-grant colleges have been at the forefront of research for over 100 years now. The research far surpasses more traditional topics like developing drought-resistant crops and ewes that produce more milk, and includes improving our lives through nanotechnology, vast indoor farming, reducing livestock methane, reducing obesity, natural pest management and keeping fresh food fresh longer.

The promise of this sprawling bill isn't illusory and will prove to be one of the best opportunities for the 118th Congress to get major legislation passed in a bipartisan fashion. There will be debates and philosophical differences, no doubt, but this can also be the clear demonstration that the congressional process can still work to get important things done even amid all the rancor and hyperpartisan politics.


Mark Pryor is a shareholder at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a law and lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. He is a former two-term Democratic United States Senator who served on the Appropriations Committee and was the chairman of the Subcommittee on Agriculture and Rural Development. He is a former Arkansas Attorney General and lives in Little Rock.

This story has been corrected to fix a misspelling in the headline. 


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