This column was first published by Nebraska Farmer on Jan. 5, 2024, and is excerpted here with permission.
When Congress passed an extension of the 2018 Farm Bill as part of a broader funding package in late 2023, it bought another year to finish the job of enacting new farm bill legislation, but it didn’t make the job any easier.
The farm bill debate bogged down in 2023 over competing priorities and funding challenges, and there have already been comments and accounts of continuing the same hardened positions through 2024.
If a new farm bill is to be finished in 2024, there seemingly will need to be substantial progress and likely substantial compromise in the first half of the year before the campaign for this fall’s general election consumes all of the attention.
If not, then the farm bill seems destined for another late-year scramble after the election in a lame-duck session of Congress, or even another extension to push the issue into a new session of Congress in 2025.
The uncertain prospects for passing a new bill and the competing interests at play offer an interesting policy lesson on the challenges of passing any major legislation, not just a farm bill.
Major legislation typically has multiple parts with multiple and sometimes competing interests engaged in the process. While each interest may know and fight the hardest for their preferences, ultimately the larger bill becomes a complex combination of policies and programs that may be difficult to grasp, even as it attracts a broader consensus of support.
Historically, farm bills were thought to be among the most bipartisan pieces of legislation, with the least difficult political path to completion. For more than 50 years, a broad rural and urban coalition helped support and deliver a farm bill with farm support and food assistance programs as key parts of the bill, along with several other issues and interests.
In recent years, the long-standing rural and urban or farm and food coalition has been tested as broad interests have become more splintered, and each group has argued for more specific programs or directions for the farm bill.
The last two farm bills each failed in a floor vote in the U.S. House of Representatives among both partisan and parochial splits before they were ultimately salvaged and passed. The 2023 debate started with many of the same competing interests and conflicts, including an ongoing debate over food assistance that already played out in the debt-ceiling debate in early 2023, and the appropriations process over the summer before Congress ever got to a formal farm bill debate.