December 02, 2023

Farm & Food File: Getting to ‘yes’ and other farm bill worries

Whoever leads the U.S. House of Representatives, the Speaker will have less than a month to push through a workable federal budget, compromise with Senate Republicans to craft an Israeli-Ukrainian multibillion-dollar aid package and — at the very least — extend the now-expired 2018 farm bill through the end of the year, if not through all of 2024.

As often is the case with House Republicans, however, the new leader’s hardest job won’t be any of these very tough, all but intractable problems. The harder, more perilous task will be finding a safe path through GOP minefields to get to the other side of the political divide to even negotiate.

Just ask the experienced Republicans whose careers fizzled when they attempted that treacherous feat in the last 30 years: Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise.

Deposed. Deposed. Deposed. Deposed. Kneecapped.

And it’s not just the Pecan Wing of the Filbert Caucus that excels in member fratricide. Democrats are somewhat deft at it, too.

For example, more than 40 years ago, then-House Majority Whip Tom Foley, D-Wash., explained to a rookie reporter, me, the most important skill he used in pushing farm bills through Congress.

“You have to know how to get people to ‘yes,’” said Foley, who chaired the House Ag Committee when it wrote and passed the 1977 farm bill.

For example, Foley explained, he wanted the 1981 farm bill to include a phrase or two to help his district’s sugar beet growers.

When his Dem friends on the committee balked, Foley — who had left the committee to move into House leadership — quietly let it be known that he, the Speaker’s key vote-getting man, wouldn’t vote for their bill unless his necessary additions were in it.

The unspoken threat was clear: If the party whip wasn’t going to vote for the bill, don’t expect him to whip the votes you need to pass said bill.

“That refocused everyone’s mind,” he explained, and his “ask” was added to the bill’s final version via a floor amendment.

The divided House then quickly passed the 1981 farm bill a few days before Christmas by a paper-thin 205-to-203 vote.

“The difference was my vote,” Foley related, and his point — “Know what people need to get to ‘yes’” — was driven home again.

Any new GOP Speaker got that message from Kat Cammack, a Florida Republican on the House Ag Committee, prior to any vote.

“They’re” — whomever is speaker — “going to have a very tough time regardless, trying to find a way to get conservatives and moderates to support a farm bill that is very much needed,” Cammack told Politico’s Weekly Agriculture in mid-October.

Translation: It’s House Republicans that Ag Committee Republicans need to worry about, not House Dems.

The bigger — and maybe even smarter — farm bill question House Republicans face isn’t if they can scrape together enough votes to extend the 2018 law through Dec. 31.

If, in fact, they can find the votes to extend, why not extend the expired law through the end of 2024 to give everyone time to write a better bill?

For now, anyway, House Ag Chairman G.T. Thompson, Republican from Pennsylvania, favors a short-term extension over adding another year.

He told Politico last week “that the ‘real drop-dead deadline for the farm bill is Dec. 31,’ meaning a new farm bill extension will be necessary before then” without mentioning any effort to push the deadline through next year.

But even that might be a hard ask of the deeply split, deeply suspicious House Republicans. While they rightly brag that they have passed three 2024 appropriation bills, nine more still hang fire.

Moreover, any, if not all, House spending bills will run smack into serious bipartisan opposition in the Senate.

And that’s if the legislative process even gets that far with the mid-November budget deadline now roaring into view and, 45 days after that, the 2024 campaign kicks off.

Alan Guebert

Alan Guebert

Farm & Food File is published weekly through the U.S. and Canada. Source material and contact information are posted at