Tension Grows as Congress Seeks to Reauthorize America’s Farm Bill

Reauthorization of the Agricultural Act of 2014 known as the “Farm Bill” shuttered to a halt this month when the House voted down the bill with a vote of 198 to 213. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) requested a motion to reconsider; and another vote is expected by June 22.

Historically, the Farm Bill has benefited from bipartisan support. It includes 12 titles that encompass programs ranging from commodity price and income supports, farm credit, trade, agricultural conservation, research, rural development, energy, and foreign and domestic food programs. In the past few years, the major domestic food program included in the Farm Bill — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — has caused ideological divides between political parties. SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program, currently provides nutritional assistance to around 45.5 million individuals and has been part of the Farm Bill since 1973. The program traditionally helped guarantee votes on the Farm Bill due to its broad reach to constituencies, until recently when SNAP reform became a priority for Republicans with the goals to both reduce federal outlays and increase work requirements for beneficiaries.

During the 2013-2014 Farm Bill reauthorization, the House had to regroup after a failed House vote which stemmed from proposed dramatic cuts to the program. Eventually, both parties compromised to cut SNAP benefits by one percent over ten years. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the results of cuts in current law have led to lower-than-expected enrollment in SNAP and total outlays are projected to be $26 billion less for the five-year authorization period. While this is good news overall, it doesn’t satisfy budget hawks.

This year, Democrats balked over the bill’s added work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries; however, this was not the only challenge to House Leadership as the bill came to the Floor. House Freedom Caucus members rejected the bill outright which led to the failed vote. The Freedom Caucus argued that the bill did not go far enough to tighten work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries and they demanded legislative action on an immigration bill they argue must be enacted. When their demands were not met, they voted down the Farm Bill, surprising House Leadership who are now scrambling to work out deals on both the Farm Bill and on immigration in June.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee are joining heads and drafting a bipartisan Farm Bill that is expected to be introduced as early as June 6. Chairman Roberts, cognizant that the bill needs 60 votes to avoid a filibuster, has said the bill will not make any dramatic changes to SNAP.

The recent cycles of Farm Bill reauthorization call into question if the Farm Bill will continue its bipartisan legacy in the coming years.

Committee Chair Positions Open as Republicans Leave Congress

The wave of Republicans vacating seats in Congress continued this month when Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) announced he would not run for re-election. Congressional retirements are expected the year before an election; however, this year, Republicans in both houses are retiring at disproportionate rates to Democrats.  To date, 41 House Republicans are retiring in contrast to 19 House Democrats. In the Senate, 4 Republicans are retiring compared to 1 Democrat respectively.

The explanations behind the high retirement numbers vary. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) have cited blatant dissatisfaction with the Trump Administration. The recent upset victories of Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) and Rep. Connor Lamb (D-PA) in Trump territories this year has paused a few re-election bids in some Trump and Clinton territories. Personal scandal has forced out a few House members from both sides of the political aisle.

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), chair of the powerful Senate Committee on Appropriations, cited his declining personal health as the reason for his departure and recently Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) assumed that role. With Cochran’s announcement, pundits have speculated whether Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who has been in and out of the hospital, will also announce plans to retire. Others, such as Speaker Ryan, say they simply want to spend more time with their family. Many House Members, including 14 Republicans and 8 Democrats are retiring to continue their public service by running for higher office.

One factor specific to Republicans is that the party enforced three consecutive term-limit (6 years) on committee chairmanship. A few retiring Republicans who are committee chairs will reach their term limit in 2019.

The wave of departing Republicans leaves several powerful committee and subcommittee chair positions open in both the Senate and the House. Orrin Hatch’s (R-UT) departure opens the chair position on the Senate Committee on Finance.

A small number of Ranking Member positions will open, such as the Ranking Member position on the House Committee on Appropriations due to the departure of Rep. Bob Brady (D-PA).

Nine House committees will lose chairs; however, the following eleven committees remain secure: Agriculture, Armed Services, Budget, Education and the Workforce, Energy and Commerce, Ethics, Homeland Security, Natural Resources, Rules, Small Business, and Ways and Means.

Leadership positions in both parties and in both bodies of Congress remain intact, except for Speaker of the House.  Since Ryan’s announcement, Republicans such as Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) are reportedly eyeing the position. Ultimately, the 116th Congress could have a very different power structure. More information will surface closer to Midterm elections in November.

Spike in Congressional House Resignations in 115th Congress

A flurry of resignations is sweeping through Congress, leaving many House seats open. As of late January, fifty Representatives had announced they would not seek reelection in 2018. As turnover rates peaked during the fall of 2017, the number of Members leaving is challenging averages from previous years.  In the 113th Congress, forty-one members did not run for reelection.  Roll Call reports that an average of twenty-two House Members retire each election cycle.

The majority of Members not running for re-election are from the Republican party, totaling thirty-four Republicans and sixteen Democrats leaving their current offices. In the Republican party, 18 are retiring, 12 are running for a different office, and 4 have left their seat open for other reasons. In the Democratic party, 6 are retiring, 2 resigned, and 8 are running for a different office.

These recently announced vacancies will lead to several high-profile midterm races in 2018. In the House, vulnerable districts could flip in key states, since the Democrats only need twenty-four seats in the House to regain a majority, making upcoming midterm elections especially important.

From Theory to Practice: Reflections from a Recent MPA Graduate

“To me, the budget process should be based on efficiency rather than politics; the financial future of our nation is too severe an issue to be hindered by the pull and tug of partisan politics.”

Merely a few months ago, I typed these words as I wrote a paper on the federal budget process for my Budgeting and Financial Management course. The class was not one I ever would have chosen, considering my deep aversion to math, instead, it was a graduation requirement for my Masters in Public Administration Program. As the semester wore on, I learned about the federal budget process: how it is effective in nature as it establishes a constitutional balance in budgetary actions, and, how it can be ineffective, due to timing and funding delays, which can decrease the speed and quality of services delivered. I learned a lot, but I ended the semester with an ultimately limited “textbook” understanding of the federal budget process. Something was missing; I was not connecting theory to practice.

Fast forward to October 4th. I was working as a Legislative Associate for The McKeon Group and on the hill for a U.S. Senate Finance Committee hearing. I sat on the edge of my seat in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, waiting to learn the fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which had expired on September 30th. The room was packed, filled with people wondering what would happen to the 9 million children who receive low-cost health coverage through CHIP.

Chairman Hatch gaveled the meeting into order, took a voice vote, and announced a bipartisan consensus to reauthorize the program. Audible sighs of relief were heard around the room, as other members vocalized the importance of the bipartisan accord on this vote, and most importantly, the need for CHIP reauthorization. Ranking Member Wyden commended the committee, stating there were several senators on both sides of the aisle who wanted to offer controversial amendments but withdrew them to ensure a strong bipartisan vote, so children would not be at risk.

Sitting there in the hearing I had my “aha moment,” so to speak. Months ago, I struggled to make the real-world connection between the budget process and its “real world” implications. Yet, in that moment, it became clear to me. Yes, I was at this meeting for a client, but, I realized that I personally understood the importance of reauthorization. I, like many, was concerned about the fate of the 9 million children who would be stripped of coverage if partisan gridlock hindered reauthorization. The words from my class paper, “efficiency rather than politics,” rung true more than ever as I exited the hearing. To me, that day was a prime example of Members of Congress doing their job, correctly, and efficiently. Amid the political impasse over repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Action, this one hearing shone out to me, as a light in the darkness, a beacon of hope for the future of politics.