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Arkansas lawmakers confident they can pass farm bill amid split Congress

State delegation optimistic about measure’s passage by Alex Thomas | January 30, 2023 at 4:45 a.m.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman (left) and U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, both R-Ark.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Sen. John Boozman understands passing a farm bill is not easy, but he is hopeful lawmakers can send legislation to President Joe Biden's desk this year.

One of the 118th Congress' priorities is the passage of a farm bill, a sweeping measure covering a variety of programs affecting agriculture, rural development and conservation among other matters. Federal lawmakers last approved a farm bill in 2018 and have until the end of September to pass new legislation or extend the current law if relevant legislative work is not finished.

Arkansas' congressional delegation will play a role in drafting the final farm bill. Boozman, of Rogers, serves as the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, and Jonesboro's Rep. Rick Crawford is a returning member of the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee.

"It takes everybody working together," Boozman told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Friday. "I'm very optimistic that we can get it done, because we can make the case that this is all about rural America."

According to the Congressional Research Service, programs in the next farm bill will have an estimated baseline of $1.3 trillion over 10 years. The nutrition title of the legislation -- which includes initiatives like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- is projected to account for 84% of the next bill's budget.

Boozman mentioned challenges in passing past farm bills have been tied to finding solutions addressing the nation's diverse agricultural issues and supporting regional commodities.

"It has to do with different regions of the country growing things in a different way," he said.

"You've got a lot of different safety nets you've got to establish, and very importantly, it can't be a one-size-fits-all. You have to work all of that out."

Boozman has worked with Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., on efforts to review the current law, which included field hearings last year in Michigan and Jonesboro. Stabenow has experience crafting agriculture legislation; she chaired the committee when Congress passed the 2014 farm bill and served as the committee's ranking member amid work on the 2018 farm bill.

Stabenow succeeded Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln as committee chairwoman following the 2010 midterm elections, in which Boozman defeated Lincoln in the general election. Stabenow became the committee's ranking member in 2015 after Republicans won control of the chamber, and she returned as chairwoman in 2021.

"She's done a really good job in the last couple of farm bills in a major way of getting them passed," Boozman said.

Stabenow announced earlier this month she will not seek reelection in 2024. The Michigan senator said in a Jan. 5 news release she remains "intensely focused on continuing this important work to improve the lives of Michiganders," including passing a farm bill.

"I think she will very much like to see this done, and it has the potential of being another legacy issue for her," Boozman said.

Lawmakers will need to overcome the challenges of the Congress' partisan split. While Democrats control the Senate, Republicans now run the House of Representatives, meaning bipartisan cooperation is necessary to pass legislation.

House Republicans -- who started this Congress with a multi-day battle over the chamber's speakership -- want to curb spending as part of its "Commitment to America" legislative agenda. Members have expressed interest in reducing spending to fiscal year 2022 levels.

Legislators also need to address the debt ceiling this year. The Treasury Department began "extraordinary measures" earlier this month as the country approached the limit.

"In a nutshell, do we get a farm bill done this year? I think there are a lot of headwinds, the budget being primary among them," Hunt Shipman, a principal and director with consulting firm Cornerstone Government Affairs, said recently.

Shipman, who has public and private sector experience involving agriculture and trade, discussed the farm bill last week as part of a webinar hosted by the National Agricultural Law Center, a nonpartisan research group with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

"The budget remains obviously a big question," he said. "I think we get a preview of that as we look at the coming year and even in the coming weeks with the debt ceiling discussion that's coming."

Boozman said it is too early to forecast the House's behaviors related to the farm bill, describing House Committee Chairman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., and ranking member David Scott, D-Ga., as "very capable people" dedicated to getting legislation through the lower chamber.

"They are going to do a very, very good job of making a case of why we need to do this. On the Senate side and the House side, we're going to do this in a financially responsible way," the senator said.

"When you look at the makeup of the House, most of the House members are in the areas that are rural areas, so they're very concerned about their constituency, they're very concerned about rural America. I think this will transcend -- to some degree, as it always does -- the Republican and Democrat disagreements."

In a statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Crawford said he has no doubts lawmakers will be able to resolve any possible differences to pass a measure.

"Getting a Farm Bill across the finish line has been a challenge since I've been in Congress but it has never stopped us from completing the job and I don't anticipate that changing this year," he said.

"I am actively engaging stakeholders and colleagues, many of whom have never supported a USDA reauthorization bill, to listen to their concerns in an effort to build consensus. Domestic production of food and fiber are critical national security issues as much as national defense and energy production."

The Senate and House committees spent part of last year reviewing the current statute to understand changes for the next measure. The reviews continue in the current Congress. The Senate Agriculture Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday regarding trade and horticulture under the current law. Officials with the federal Department of Agriculture are among the witnesses set to appear before committee members.

CORRECTION: Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow is a Democrat lawmaker from Michigan. An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Stabenow’s political affiliation.


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