If the polls can tell us anything, it’s that the 2024 election cycle will be vicious. Incumbents, especially those in swing states and districts, will need to show they’ve delivered clear wins to their constituents if they hope to keep their seats. Following a year of several near-shutdowns, mounting hyper-partisanship, and widespread concern about the ability of Democrats and Republicans to work together, governing effectively will be a challenge for members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.
But Congress has nine months left to legislate before voters hit the polls. Few policy areas touch the lives of as many Americans as agriculture and infrastructure, and coincidentally, windows exist for bipartisan congressional action this year on both fronts.
Starting first with agriculture – food, agriculture, and related industries account for 1 in 10 jobs in the U.S. economy and more than $1 trillion of our gross domestic product. Almost 42 million people (12.5% of the total population) rely on food assistance – and every American eats. The share of household spending on food is nearly 13 percent, ranked third behind spending on housing and transportation.
The farm bill – a must-pass piece of legislation that sets food and farming policy and is generally reauthorized every five years – is an opportunity for Congress to support a range of federal programs that aim to make farmers and ranchers more competitive in global markets, mitigate agriculture’s climate impacts, and keep food prices affordable. These range from conservation programs that improve sustainable production for a growing global population to market access, development efforts that expand American competitiveness in foreign markets, and agricultural research initiatives that accelerate technological progress.
Substantial increases in public agricultural research spending, in particular, have been projected to slow cropland expansion, reduce global emissions, and raise output, which would in turn reduce crop and livestock prices without impacting farm profitability. This makes federal research spending a win-win-win for the climate, farmers, and consumers.
Historically, farm bills have relied on a unique bipartisan political coalition that weds those who benefit from rural development and agricultural supports and the mainly urban beneficiaries of nutrition assistance programs. The next farm bill is no different.
With Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow’s retirement approaching at the end of this Congress and House Republicans hoping to maintain their majority following the election, both parties have incentives to pass the bill before the year is up. After passing a one-year extension of the 2018 farm bill that expires at the end of September, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees continue to work on the new legislation. Rumors continue to swirl around whether a final compromise can make it to President Joe Biden’s desk before November.
Vulnerable lawmakers in agriculture-heavy states and districts are still looking to achieve wins in the farm bill to tout on the campaign trail. House Agriculture Committee members John Duarte (R-CA) and Marc Molinaro (R-NY) face tight reelection battles to hold on to districts that Biden carried in 2020.
Likewise, Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) face tough paths to reelection as Democratic incumbents in red states and are looking for farm bill victories to bring home to their largely rural, conservative constituencies.
Despite political will, headwinds abound. House Agriculture Committee Chairman G.T. Thompson (R-PA) and his staff are exploring ways to reallocate some of the nearly $20 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act for USDA conservation programs to other areas of the farm bill, while Democrats continue to hold that doing so would be a non-starter. Ongoing partisan debates over spending on SNAP, still known to some as food stamps, and whether to raise reference prices (or not), as well as a fresh update to the Congressional Budget Office’s 10-year cost estimates for farm bill programs expected this spring, all threaten to stall the already delayed legislation.
Passing a new farm bill in 2024 has the potential to help farmers and ranchers increase productivity, improve supply chain resilience to disruptions, and make food cheaper for consumers in every state and district. Similarly, reforming the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) stands to benefit constituents in every district by making it easier to build infrastructure, faster.
Roads, power lines and ports are the backbone of our economy, impacting the lives of every American. Public investment in infrastructure is both shown to increase national productivity and spur sizable private investment. Better infrastructure supports a stronger economy that works better for American families. That’s why infrastructure investment is one of Biden’s most popular accomplishments.
Despite record investment in recent years, the state of infrastructure still needs substantial improvement. In 2021, the United States was awarded a C- on the American Society of Civil Engineers’ infrastructure report card. Without sizable development, aging roads, bridges and energy infrastructure will cost American families $3,300 per year.
Congress has already taken a step in the right direction by passing the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to stimulate investment. But investing in infrastructure doesn't mean it’s being built. Antiquated environmental regulations make building anything in this country expensive and time consuming. Last year it took 4.2 years on average to get federal approval for large projects, like power lines and large solar farms. Even after federal approval, regulations allow project opponents to stop development in its tracks for up to six years. That means the benefits of existing infrastructure investment might not be realized for more than a decade.
Congress can shorten that timeframe. In fact, lawmakers have been talking about it for over a year. Last summer, Senator Joe Manchin brokered a deal incorporating some reforms into the Fiscal Responsibility Act. The changes set boundaries on how long approval documents can be and how long agencies can take to prepare them, but they didn’t go far enough to make a significant impact.
In 2024, Congress has an opportunity to negotiate a constructive deal that would make building infrastructure faster and cheaper. Both Democrats and Republicans want to empower development, but differ on what technologies to promote and how to incorporate community input. Finding compromise will undoubtedly be difficult. But in an election year, both Democrats and Republicans should jump at the opportunity to deliver such a high-impact win to their constituents.
We can expect both parties to become increasingly entrenched as November looms. But, lawmakers should seize the opportunity to build bipartisan momentum as both parties seek to bring home wins this fall. The farm bill and NEPA reform should be at the top of every member’s election year to-do list.