October is sometimes a quiet month on Capitol Hill, as Congress usually leaves town for a 2-3 week district work period. While the Senate conformed to this tradition, the House has remained in DC since early September, and it has been tumultuous time on that side of the Hill. The House has been at a standstill because the office of Speaker of the House of Representatives was vacated October 3 – the first time it has ever happened.
The House cannot conduct business without a speaker, meaning all other matters are on pause. The House Republican conference has been unable to nominate a candidate who can garner a majority of all votes cast on the House floor. The House speaker situation follows a near-miss on a government shutdown and the 2018 Farm Bill officially expiring.
GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN AVERTED
The end of September and early October featured a prolonged standoff on Capitol Hill over government funding. As October 1 approached, a government shutdown seemed like a near-certainty, as deep divisions over spending levels, border security measures, and aid to Ukraine prevented the House from passing the annual appropriations bills.
To date, the House has only been able to pass four of the regular twelve appropriations bills. They tried to pass a fifth – the agriculture appropriations bill – but it was voted down by a wide margin. This bill contained massive spending cuts for farm and food programs and included a harmful provision preventing USDA from completing the ongoing Packers & Stockyards Act rulemakings. NFU was among the vocal opponents of the House’s version of the agriculture appropriations bill and ran a membership action alert against it.
Realizing the remaining appropriations bills had no chance at passage on time, the House then attempted to pass a stopgap month-long funding bill, with steep spending cuts and additional border security measures. This bill also failed on a full House vote, leaving nothing to offer the Senate for spending negotiations.
At this point, a government shutdown appeared inevitable. On deadline day, House GOP leadership signaled they were out of options to pass a stopgap measure that could pass with just Republican votes, and thus, a shutdown was imminent. But in a surprising reversal in the final hours, Speaker Kevin McCarthy put a 45-day-long continuing resolution (CR) bill up for a vote. The House GOP resisted this option as long as they could, while congressional Democrats had been calling for a clean CR for weeks.
The 45-day CR will fund the government through November 17. The CR was mostly “clean,” as it maintained fiscal year 2023 funding levels with no strings attached. The CR excluded any spending cuts and border provisions, as well as Ukraine aid. One notable addition to the package was approximately $16 billion in natural disaster relief, which was supported by both parties.
The House passed the bill 331-91, with 126 Republicans joining Democrats (all except one) voting in favor. The Senate quickly considered the House measure that evening, voting 88-9 to approve the bill. President Biden signed the bill into law late September 30, averting a government shutdown in the eleventh hour (literally).
As a result, USDA operations, and many other federal programs family farmers, ranchers, and rural communities rely on, remain funded. The CR also included an extension of Livestock Mandatory Reporting and ensured direct and guaranteed farm ownership loans can continue being made.
Following this episode, many hoped Congress would get down to business and finish the fiscal year 2024 appropriations process. It turns out the House had different plans. Drastically different plans.
SPEAKER SHOWDOWN GRINDS HOUSE TO A HALT
During the process that led to fifteen rounds of voting on a Speaker of the House back in January, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) made a variety of deals with members of the Freedom Caucus in pursuit of the speaker’s gavel. One of the major concessions McCarthy made was allowing just one member to invoke a motion to vacate the speaker.
McCarthy apparently also agreed to return to “regular order” for appropriations bills, in which Congress considers the passage of individual spending bills, versus packaging them altogether into an “omnibus.” Key holdouts from the Freedom Caucus, most notably, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), drew this line in concrete. In September, leading up to the appropriations deadline, Gaetz warned McCarthy not to work with House Democrats on a funding extension. McCarthy defied him.
The CR passed with just about every House Democrat voting for it, while only about half of the House GOP voted in favor. To Gaetz, advancing this CR breached their January agreement. He wasted no time invoking the motion to vacate.
On October 3, the House formally voted 216-210 in favor of the motion to vacate, as eight Republicans joined all Democrats to remove then-Speaker McCarthy. There were reports House Democrats may try to negotiate with McCarthy to gain their own concessions in exchange for voting “present,” which would have saved McCarthy’s speakership. However, McCarthy made it clear he was not interested.
After McCarthy’s ousting, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA), House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH), and Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA), a member of the House Agriculture Committee, joined the speakership race at various points. Scalise eventually became the GOP nominee for the position after a secret ballot on October 11, but dropped out the following day, as it was clear he did not have the votes. All eyes then shifted to Jordan, who also had a steep climb among moderate holdouts.
Jordan appeared to gain significant momentum and expressed confidence he would ultimately prevail. However, Jordan failed three times in speaker elections and dropped out of the race after the third ballot.
As of October 20, the office of Speaker of the House has remained vacant for more than two weeks while the House has effectively been frozen. The House is unable to conduct any legislative business until a new Speaker is elected. These persistent delays will have major implications in the weeks and months ahead for fiscal year 2024 appropriations and the farm bill.
FARM BILL LATER, PERHAPS MUCH LATER
In late August and early September, it became clear the farm bill would not be reauthorized before it expired on September 30, independent of the recent House speaker dilemma.
NFU has been working with coalition partners to help build pressure on Congress to act on the farm bill, and to make sure lawmakers do not just pass any farm bill – we need the right farm bill.
Major effects of farm bill expiration will not be felt until late January or February 2024, so Congress still has some time to work with before the need for an extension or longer reauthorization becomes politically urgent and unavoidable.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Ranking Member John Boozman (R-AR) are still hopeful to achieve the end-of-year deadline for a new farm bill. Others are not as optimistic, as House Agriculture Committee Chairman GT Thompson (R-PA) suspects the passage of a new farm bill may be a casualty of the speakership dilemma.
The speaker standoff is not the only obstacle to getting the farm bill done by year’s end. There are several sticking points that need to be hashed out before draft bills can be introduced, primarily concerning funding increases for certain farm programs. On the Senate side, each side of the committee differs on the $20 billion for USDA conservation programs from the Inflation Reduction Act and the scope and application of Title I commodity programs.
NFU will continue to monitor the latest developments and pressure points and push for the right farm bill reauthorization.