As anticipated in most pre-election polls, Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives in the 116th Congress and Republicans added at least two seats to their narrow majority in the Senate. With several races still too close to call while absentee ballots are counted, Democrats added a net of at least 28 House seats, giving them a majority of 223 in the 435-member chamber. As a result, it is expected that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) will again be elected Speaker when members of the new Congress return to Washington next week.
In the House Agriculture Committee, Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) will regain the gavel from current Chair Mike Conaway (R-TX). In the Senate, Republicans added at least two seats to their 51-49 majority as three Midwest Democrats from heavily red states – Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, and Joe Donnelly in Indiana – were defeated while incumbent Republican Dean Heller in Nevada lost his bid for reelection. The result will not change the need for bipartisan support to pass legislation in the Senate, where a supermajority of 60 votes is need to overcome potential filibusters. In races for governor, Democrats picked up a net of six states, including Illinois, Kansas, Michigan and Wisconsin. Since most terms are for four years, these pickups could be important in 2021, when most state legislatures redraw the boundaries of their House districts after the 2020 census and governors can either approve or veto the new maps.
While the results of the Congressional mid-term elections on Nov. 6 had been widely expected, they should accelerate efforts by Agriculture Committee leaders to finish the 2018 Farm Bill before the 115th Congress adjourns in December. In the Senate, the net addition of two or possibly three Republican seats will not affect the need for a supermajority of 60 votes or the historic bipartisan vote of 86 to 11 for the bill reported by the Agriculture Committee in July. In the House, Republicans are concerned by the prospect of Democrats writing a much different farm bill in 2019 to replace the legislation passed on strict party-line votes by the Agriculture Committee and on the floor.
Any leverage they had before the mid-terms to tighten work and eligibility requirements for the SNAP (food stamp) program in negotiations with the Senate has been lost, although President Trump stated on Nov. 7 that he still wants tougher work rules. However, Chairman Conaway is expected to work to find compromises, not only on SNAP but on Title I (commodities) and Title II (conservation). A provision in the House bill would eliminate Title I (PLC and county ARC) payments for farms on which base acres were not planted to program crops in any year between 2009 and 2017. Savings from disqualifying these unassigned base acres would be used to allow farmers who experienced exceptional drought for 20 consecutive weeks in 2008 to 2012 to update their program payment yields under ARC-CO and PLC using 2013-2017 data. This provision would benefit farmers in 417 counties in Texas and in neighboring states, and Conaway has been locked in a disagreement with Senate Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) over whether the savings should be spent on other programs.
Faced with a deadline to either finish a new farm bill in December or extend the recently-expired 2014 Agricultural Act for one year or longer, Conaway is expected to seek a compromise that breaks the deadlock and moves the bill forward over the next month. Congress will return after Thanksgiving to pass spending bills that will keep the government running after the current Continuing Resolution expires on Dec. 7. While they may decide to add two weeks before adjourning, there will be pressure to simply extend the 2014 Farm Bill if the Agriculture Committees can’t resolve their differences.
John Gordley is executive director of the U.S. Canola Association and founder of Gordley Associates in Washington, D.C.