There have been some seriously big changes happening in Washington, DC over the past few weeks. Not only is there a new president and new White House staff, but an entirely new crop of federal agency officials set to be confirmed and placed, including the recently announced new nominee for secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue. One thing that won't be changing, however, are the men in charge of the influential Senate and House Agriculture Committees. But what are congressional committees? And what potential impact can agriculture committees and their chairmen potentially have on sustainable food and farming?
What Are Congressional Committees and Why Are They Important?
If you think back to Schoolhouse Rock!'s famous "I'm Just a Bill" song, you may remember that the way Congress is supposed to work is that bills, before they become laws, are first introduced on the floor of either the House or the Senate by a member of Congress. Then, that bill is referred to the relevant congressional committee by either the Speaker of the House or the Senate parliamentarian.
Most of the time, when a bill is sent to a committee, nothing happens, and the bill effectively dies right then and there. However, when action does happen on a bill in committee:
- It's usually referred to a relevant subcommittee and goes on to receive formal hearings and comments from government agencies, industry representatives and advocates.
- Based on this feedback and additional research by congressional members, the bill is then "marked-up" and goes through a process of revisions.
- Once the committee is finished with the bill, it's voted out and sent to the rules committee (in the House) and then on to be scheduled for a hearing on the floor of the House or Senate. (For a description of the rest of the steps in how a bill becomes a law, check out gov's website on the legislative process.)
So congressional committees are incredibly important. Not only do they effectively determine whether or not a bill lives to become a law or dies, they also can have a lot of influence over the content of the bill itself and how ultimately how the final law is designed and functions. They can also determine how much funding certain federal programs, agencies and activities get through the budget process and thus what work gets done on the ground at these agencies.
What do the Senate and House Agriculture Committees do?
In the Senate, the committee that's in charge of reviewing food and farm legislation is the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. This committee oversees all legislation related to the US agriculture industry, farming programs, forestry and logging, nutrition and health. The Agriculture Committee has five subcommittees, each headed with a chairmen from the majority party including: Commodities, Risk Management, and Trade; Rural Development and Energy; Conservation, Forestry, and Natural Resources; Nutrition, Specialty Crops, and Agricultural Research; and Livestock, Marketing and Agricultural Security.
In the House, the Committee on Agriculture has jurisdiction over federal farm policy as well as forestry, nutrition, water conservation and other agriculture-related fields. It has also has five subcommittees, including: Commodity Exchanges, Energy and Credit; Conservation and Forestry; Nutrition; General Farm Commodities and Risk Management; Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research; and Livestock and Foreign Agriculture. The committee also has oversight of and can recommend funding appropriations for various governmental agencies (like the USDA), programs and activities, as defined by House rules.
Although these committees aren't as powerful as, say, the House Rules committee or Senate Appropriations committee, they're especially important for Senators and Representatives from many rural areas where agriculture is the primary industry.
Who's In Charge of the Agriculture Committees?
Like subcommittees, Senate and House standing congressional committees are headed by members from the majority party (i.e., now, all the committee chairmen are Republican since Republicans make up the majority of the House and the Senate). Being the head or Chairman of the House or Senate agriculture committee gives that individual significant influence over federal food and agriculture policy (although not as much influence as they used to have) as the chairmen have chief responsibility over what bills are considered and which ones are not. In essence, the chairs decide on which issues and topics the committee will work on and which ones they won't.
This year, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), was tapped again to lead the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry during the 115th Congress. He's s been the Chairman of the committee since 2015. According to Food Policy Action, a non- profit founded by Tom Colicchio that educates the public on how elected officials are voting on sustainable food and farming issues, Sen. Pat Roberts scored a 40 percent on their 2016 Food Policy Scorecard. This score partially resulted from his decision to vote in support of passing the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014 (HR 4432), aka the Dark Act, fast-tracking the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) and Arial Pesticide Spraying Legislation (HR 2577) that exempted certain pesticides from being regulated under the Clean Water Act.
In the House, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), has been tapped to lead the US House Committee on Agriculture during the 115thCongress, and like Pat Roberts, has been chairman of the committee since 2015. Based on his voting record last year, Rep. Conaway received a 25 percent from Food Policy Action. Like Sen. Roberts, he also voted in support of the Dark Act, TPP and the Arial Pesticide legislation. However, Conaway also voted against an amendment that would have clarified that natural foods can't have GMO ingredients, an amendment to preserve funding for FDA food safety rules and a bill that would have allowed farm workers exposed to pesticides to give their doctors and lawyers access to pesticide application records.
These two members of congress will play a central role in shaping food policy funding and legislation this year, including the farm bill, the future of federal anti-hunger and nutrition programs like food stamps, funding for food safety and sustainable farming programs and the implementation of new food labeling laws.