OMAHA (DTN) -- Votes are still being counted, especially in Western states, but the closer-than-expected election will affect the debate around a potential 2023 farm bill as well as legislation in a lame-duck session.
In the House, the Associated Press had yet to call 39 races as of Thursday morning. Republicans had won 207 House seats and Democrats had 189. It takes 218 seats to win the majority.
The Senate seems like a replay of 2020. Each party has 48 seats with undecided races in Alaska, Arizona, Georgia and Nevada. The fate of the Senate will likely come down to the Dec. 6 Georgia runoff between incumbent Raphael Warnock, a Democrat and member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, in his race against Republican Herschel Walker.
Regardless, the country is again looking at a divided government going forward, said Randy Russell, a lobbyist for several agricultural interests. "It seems like here we go again. It's amazing we find ourselves in this situation."
Summing up the state of Congress, "This election made everything clear as mud, as far as I can tell," said former Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat and former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
Peterson and Russell spoke Wednesday on a newsmaker event hosted by North American Agricultural Journalists.
A narrow House majority for Republicans could help bring together a farm bill if Republicans are willing to work across the aisle to "help bring this thing together," Peterson said.
Peterson later added that agricultural lawmakers "are not necessarily polarized or partisan," but the last couple of farm bills have been difficult because of a lack of agreement on how to handle nutrition programs. A tight majority might lead Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson, R-Pa., the expected House Agriculture Committee chairman, to negotiate some guidelines on funding for SNAP. Peterson noted Democrats may be open to making some changes in food-aid oversight. Peterson said his advice to Thompson and GOP leaders is to figure out what Democrats "need" on nutrition. "Make an agreement on that before you start the whole process."
"There have been problems, and one of the problems is what happened in Minnesota where you had a bunch of people that walked off with $250 million on the system because there weren't the right kind of guardrails around it," Peterson said. "And that's something that could be worked on."
Federal authorities in Minnesota have charged 49 people with embezzling funds from a federal food-aid program created during the pandemic.
Peterson added he also thinks agricultural leaders and nutrition groups need to re-establish the coalition from those two sides that has helped foster farm bill negotiations in the past.
Russell noted farm bills have "gotten increasingly more difficult" to pass over time. And it takes 60 votes in the Senate to get any bill passed.
"There are going to have to be some discussions about what the art of the possible is here to get a bipartisan bill done," Russell said.
Russell added that he believes Thompson will also want to get a farm bill passed while he sits in the chairman's seat.
Eyes will be on GOP groups such as the Freedom Caucus and how they will wield their influence when the GOP brings major spending bills to the floor. Peterson also pointed to the plans laid out last summer by the Republican Study Committee -- which includes 160 or so House members -- to cut farm program spending along with other federal programs.
"It remains to be seen what's going to happen there," Peterson said.
Peterson and Russell both agreed a GOP-led House will not be as focused on climate programs in the next farm bill as Democrats have been in the Biden administration. That could become an area that is dialed back in the drafting of a farm bill.
"Republicans are not wild about this, and there are some Democrats who want to push it," Peterson said.
CCC PURSE STRINGS
Tied to that, Peterson added he expects there will be more oversight and some House investigations into how USDA used the Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC) funds to pay for $2.8 billion in climate-smart agriculture grants. Lawmakers were not happy that they were not consulted more about that spending.
"In the House, you could see some investigations of that sort of stuff that could complicate the farm bill situation if that happens," Peterson said.
GOP lawmakers did not complain when the Trump administration spent more than $50 billion over three years in CCC funds for Market Facilitation Program (MFP) and Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) payments.
"They were all in favor of it when Trump was doing it," Peterson said. He added administrations from both parties have used CCC as a "spigot" over time. "It's pretty hard for them to complain when Trump was doing it."
Russell said the CCC "provides the agriculture secretary broad authority" on spending funds to support for production agriculture. He also noted on the climate-smart programs there were $19 billion in requests and $8 billion contributed by the private sector to match the USDA funds.
"There is a pattern over time where administrations, depending on what their priorities are and what the economic circumstances are, we use the Commodity Credit Corp. for things that aren't specifically authorized," Russell said.
Russell and Peterson agreed Congress could at least discuss next year putting more controls on how CCC funds are used.
In the lame-duck session, Peterson said he expects Congress will focus its attention on finishing multiple appropriations bills to fund the federal government through the fiscal year. Peterson doesn't think the Senate will take up a farmworker immigration bill that a handful of senators have been trying to bring to the floor for more than a year.
"I don't see why the Senate would change their position," Peterson said. "This is very controversial in some quarters, and that's part of the problem."
In the House, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., and Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., co-sponsored the Growing Climate Solutions Act. That bill passed the Senate with 92 votes but has stalled in the House Agriculture Committee. Russell said he expects Spanberger and Bacon will push to get that bill advanced during the lame-duck session.
"If we're going to support the growth of private carbon markets, getting the Growing Climate Solutions Act passes and enacted is a very positive step to getting third-party verifiers out in the market so that we certify and verify credits and hopefully that will get done," Russell said.
The Senate also has some outstanding agricultural nominees for trade hanging in the wind. Alexis Taylor needs a floor vote to become undersecretary for trade at USDA. Senators also have held up a vote for Doug McKalip to be the chief agricultural negotiator at the U.S. Trade Representative's Office.
"That will give an ag focus and the importance of ag trade," he said.
Also see "GOP Closer to Winning House, but Senate Control Will Have to Wait" here: https://www.dtnpf.com/….
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Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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