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Mid-Term Elections Loom Large Over Next Farm Bill

Although agriculture issues will likely not be top of mind for voters in the upcoming midterm elections this November, the outcomes of this election cycle will certainly influence farm policy in a big way. Congress has recently begun rewriting and reauthorizing the current farm bill, which expires in 2023. The timing of this process is colliding with the upcoming midterms, whose outcome will shape what is in the farm bill and who gets to decide. The elections will determine which party controls the House and the Senate, and will also have an impact on who will serve on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees that will write the farm bill in the next Congress. This November all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 seats in the U.S. Senate are up for election.

Redistricting May Shift House Seats

This midterm election cycle will be different from recent ones due to the Congressional redistricting process that happens once every 10 years as part of the U.S. census. By law, the House is capped at 435 seats, which are divvied up based on the population of each state. New maps are drawn outlining the boundaries of each Congressional district as part of the census. Due to results of the 2020 census, six states gained new Congressional seats and seven states lost seats. Redrawn Congressional maps can be a mixed bag. In some cases, they can dramatically change the political makeup of the district, making it more competitive or less competitive for a particular party. In other cases, incumbents from different districts can be drawn into a newly created district, forcing them to compete against each other.

Republicans need to win just four additional seats to take back control of the House and they’ve already gained three seats through the redistricting process. This factor, coupled with the low approval ratings of President Biden, will almost surely result in the House flipping to Republican control.

What does this mean for the farm bill and for the House Agriculture Committee? If the Republicans take back the House, Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-PA-15) will become Chairman of the Committee, putting him in the driver’s seat to write the farm bill. Additionally, we can expect to see many changes to the makeup of the committee. Of the competitive house races, nearly 15 are members of the House Agriculture Committee, with only two of those being Republicans. The highly competitive races include Axne, Davids, Kaptur, Schrier, Craig, Spanberger and O’Halleran, all Democrats. A few other notable changes: Vicki Hartzler (R-MO-04), a longtime member of the House Agriculture Committee, is departing the House to run for an open Senate seat. Rodney Davis (R-IL-13) was drawn into the same district as a fellow House Agriculture Committee Republican Mary Miller and lost the primary. Davis was a top champion for organic agriculture over the years and is co-author of the Continuous Improvement and Accountability in Organic Standards Act. His loss will be felt heavily by the organic sector.

Al Lawson’s (D-FL-05) district was eliminated and he is now running against former House Agriculture Committee member Neal Dunn in a newly drawn district. Jimmy Panetta (D-CA-20), who currently represents Salinas Valley, a district that is heavily agriculture-based, lost most of the agricultural land in the redistricting process. He will be running in a new district that is more coastal. Outside of the House Agriculture Committee there are some other notable mentions. Kurt Schrader (D-OR-05), a former member of the Agriculture Committee and one of the only organic farmers in Congress, faced a tough Democratic primary against a candidate who ran to the left and lost. Two Republicans on the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee who are supporters of organic have competitive races. David Valadao’s (R-CA-22) seat is currently rated as a tossup for the general election, although he survived his primary. Dan Newhouse (R-WA-04) is facing multiple primary opponents. (At the time this article was drafted, Newhouse’s primary scheduled for August had not yet occurred.)

Senate Control is in Play

The upcoming elections will determine who controls the Senate, which is currently split 50-50. Democrats hold 48 seats with two independents who caucus with them and Vice President Harris serving as a tie-breaking vote. Republicans control 50 seats. Of the 35 seats up for reelection, 14 are currently held by Democrats and 21 are held by Republicans. However, of the highly competitive seats in play, six of them are held by Democrats and four are held by Republicans, making the Senate elections much more unpredictable. Six Senators who serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee, including the Ranking Member John Boozman (R-AR), are up for reelection, and there is an open seat in Vermont with Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) retirement. Of the Senate Agriculture Committee members, only Ralph Warnock (D-GA) has a truly competitive race. Michael Bennet (D-CO) is facing a Republican challenger who could make his race somewhat more competitive.

Outside of the Agriculture Committee, incumbents from states with high organic production are running for reelection in California, Indiana, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin. Of those the most competitive races are Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Ron Johnson (R-WI). There are also open seats in Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, with Pennsylvania being the most closely watched.

Although the makeup of the Senate Agriculture Committee is much less likely to change than in the House, which party ends up controlling the Senate will have a big impact on farm bill negotiations. If it is Democrats, Debbie Stabenow will remain Chair of the committee, but she might be dealing with a Republican-controlled House, making split party control a central factor in negotiations. However, she is no stranger to this dynamic. When the 2014 farm bill was signed into law, Democrats controlled the Senate (Stabenow was Chair), while Republicans controlled the House. If Republicans take back control of the Senate, John Boozman will be poised to become Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee for the first time, putting his mark on the farm bill. House and Senate control by the opposing party could set up a collision course with the Democratic administration, though farm bills have traditionally been bipartisan affairs.

One trend to watch that could have a chilling effect on the farm bill is the increased political polarization occurring in both parties. There are more candidates for Congress running to the far left and to the far right than in previous elections. The Agriculture Committee used to include a lot more moderate Democrats and Republicans who were inclined to negotiate, compromise, and actually legislate. Regardless of what happens this November, the only surefire way to protect and advance organic in the next farm bill is to cultivate support for the sector on both sides of the aisle.

Megan DeBates is Vice President of Government Affairs for Organic Trade Association.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2022 Organic Report, you can view the full magazine here.