To a young Union overwhelmingly dependent upon agriculture, several key factors, including the addition of several new states, the evolution of federal lands policy, and the pressure for infrastructure improvements to transport produce to markets, underscored the need for federal agricultural policies. Contending that agriculture was one of “three great branches of domestic industry,” no less than commerce and manufacturing, Sen. William Findlay (PA) moved the resolution to create the standing Committee on Agriculture, which the Senate ultimately approved by a vote of 22-14 late on Friday, December 9, 1825.
During the first five-month session of its existence (1825-26), two bills were referred to the new committee: one, for an impost on spirits, and the other for repeal of the duty on imported salt (used by farmers to dry and preserve meat and tan hides). Many of the agricultural issues of the early- to mid-19th century, centering on tariffs, trade, public lands, and internal improvements, were handled by other committees. Matters that were considered by the Agriculture Committee during this mid-century period included petitions for federal encouragement of domestic commodities, resolutions for the creation of national agricultural schools and societies, measures recommending price relief on certain imported goods, and the creation of an Agricultural Bureau within the Department of the Interior.
On March 5, 1857, the Agriculture Committee became a casualty of the Senate’s consolidation and abolition of some of its standing committees. The Committee’s revival almost exactly six years later was the result of several extraordinary circumstances. During the Civil War, the nation experienced rapid immigration, the creation of the Department of Agriculture (USDA), and two other storied Acts in the spring and summer of 1862: the Homestead Act, and the Morrill Land Grant College Act. The former (with later legislation) ultimately opened 730 million acres of public lands. The latter gave 16,000 square miles of federal land to states to sell and invest in bonds with which to fund the establishment of colleges that would include agriculture “and the mechanic arts” within their curriculum. One of the first measures reported out of the newly reconstituted Committee was a joint resolution for office space to accommodate its first professional staff member, John McCollough.
Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, the Committee established and expanded its jurisdiction over several important areas: forest reserves and timber lands, agricultural experiment stations, animal industry, commodity prices, and agricultural sciences. The Morrill Land Grant Colleges provided a major contribution to agriculture through the development of student-participant laboratory work. Beginning in 1887, such research was conducted by agricultural experiment stations operating under a federal-state partnership that has served as a model for cooperation in other areas and paved the way for general advancement in the biological and life sciences. For example, their research has helped fight tuberculosis, rabies, and other diseases, while progress in the field of antibiotics first grew out of experiment research stations aimed at better understanding soil bacteria.
The creation of the Senate Appropriations Committee in 1867 led to the consolidation of most general appropriations bills under that Committee within a decade. Not until 1899 did appropriations for the USDA revert back to what was then called the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry. Forestry had become an especially important part of the Committee’s responsibility, prompting the name change in 1884, after the addition of a Division of Forestry under the Commissioner for Agriculture in 1881. It became the Bureau of Forestry in 1901, and the Forest Service in 1905. Fifty six million acres of Federal Forest Reserves (established in 1891 under the General Land Office of the Department of the Interior) were transferred to the USDA’s Forest Service in 1905, during the presidency of the great conservationist president, Theodore Roosevelt.
The “Progressive Era” that President Roosevelt personified was a time of accounting for the tremendous changes that had taken place in America’s rural landscape and economy after the Civil War. Increasing urbanization began to change the way Americans saw farming and rural life. For those who resisted the call of the city, urbanization provided an economic boom, as fewer farmers were producing for more urban dwellers, causing prices to increase—in part, the reason behind the “Golden Age of Agriculture.” The falling number of farmers (from 58 to 38 percent of the labor force, between 1860 and 1900) reflected increased productivity. The growing size of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry was some index of the rising activism of the Committee’s “Golden Age.” From 1825 until 1879, the Committee consisted of five Senators, two years later it rose from six to seven members, by 1895 it consisted of nine members, and in 1907 membership reached eleven Senators.
For much of the ensuing period from 1908 to 1933—Senators from west of the Mississippi River enjoyed a nearly exclusive hold over the Committee’s chairmanship. (The single exception was a two-year stint under Henry Burnham of New Hampshire). One of these chairmen was Thomas Gore of Oklahoma. Under Gore’s chairmanship, the Committee left its meeting space on the first floor of the Capitol (S-122) and in December 1918 moved to room 328 of the “New” Office Building across the street—since renamed the Russell Senate Office Building—where it continues to meet today.
Progressive Era legislation related to agriculture included the Reclamation Act of 1902, the Weeks Act of 1911 for acquiring and protecting watersheds in federal forest lands, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 for teaching improved farming methods through a federal-state cooperative extension service (based on the research of the government’s experiment stations), and the Food and Drug (1906) and Meat Inspection (1907) Acts. The agricultural boom of 1910-14 came to be the basis of comparison when computing “parity” prices in later years. As war clouds darkened over Europe in 1914, U.S. farmers stood on what appeared to be the threshold of another decade of high prices and demand. Instead, in the aftermath of that war, farmers faced an economic downturn that preceded the Great Depression by a decade.
Congress had already begun shoring up easier credit for farmers through the Farm Credit System, launched by the Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916 and the Agricultural Credit Act of 1923. The System financed land and farm machinery purchases that would enable the increasingly commercialized sector to feed a growing domestic and foreign demand. The Capper-Volstead Act of 1922 came to be hailed as the “Magna Carta” of agriculture for exempting agricultural cooperatives from anti-trust legislation. In that same year (1922), the Senate reversed itself again and reconcentrated jurisdiction over general appropriations bills within the Appropriations Committee, while guaranteeing authorizing committees’ members ex officio membership on the Appropriations’ relevant subcommittees.
References to “Coolidge Prosperity” overlook the fact that, for farmers, most of the 1920s were years of low prices caused by overproduction, debt, and depression. In response to the Coolidge Administration’s laissez-faire approach, Congress tried to take up the initiative for farmers’ assistance. Two McNary-Haugen bills of 1927 and ’28 were vetoed, out of an ideological fear of price-fixing. But the crisis of the Great Depression would focus its share of relief on America’s farmers, whose mortgage debt had risen from $3.2 billion in 1910 to $9.6 billion by 1930.
But under the new chairmanship of Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith (SC), the Agriculture and Forestry Committee championed three new and far-reaching initiatives for subsidizing and stabilizing agriculture, beginning with the landmark Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, which was considered the first Farm Bill because it initiated direct federal assistance to farmers. Originally designed as emergency legislation to address the Depression and as a part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the 1933 bill provided broad authority to USDA and sought to reduce farmers’ surpluses by restricting plantings. USDA then sought to redistribute the farm surpluses to meet the nutritional needs of people utilizing a “stamps” program to allow families in need to buy surplus products at a discount.
In 1936, the Supreme Court struck down the major provisions of the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act ruling them unconstitutional. In response to the Supreme Court, and coinciding with the Dust Bowl, Congress sought to address both by passing the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936. This farm legislation aimed to stabilize prices by offering price support loans coupled with reduction of plantings of soil depleting crops and assistance to farmers to plant soil conserving crops. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 authorized price support loans and supply controls through acreage allotments and marketing quotas, which served as the legislative cornerstone for commodity price support programs for the next thirty years.
The third initiative expanded the Farm Credit System through the Farm Credit Act of 1933. The Farm Credit Administration (FCA), which supervises the Farm Credit System, was established as an independent agency in 1933. Transferred to the USDA in 1939, the FCA was reconstituted under the control of the Federal Farm Credit Board by the Farm Credit Act of 1953. The Act altered policy to encourage increased borrower ownership and the eventual retirement of all federal government funds—which was accomplished by 1969.
Other emergency relief measures for American farms during this period included the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), established by executive order in 1935. A Rural Electrification Act, passed by Congress the next year, established the REA as a lending agency to make loans for improving electrical service in rural areas. Similar programs followed: the Water Facilities Act of 1937 made loans available to enhance farm water systems in the West, and the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of the same year extended 40-year loans to farmers deemed risks by other creditors.
During the 1930s, the general philosophy of farm policy had been that of assisting producers to adjust their production and marketing to improve and stabilize farm income and prices in a period of pervasive unemployment. The overall objective was the attainment of prices equal to a certain percentage of parity in purchasing power equivalent to that which was enjoyed by farm producers in the period 1910-14. However, World War II caused a change in attitudes towards farm policy. During the war years, the emphasis was on maximum production of farm commodities. In this atmosphere, farm policy leaders felt, based on the farm depression experience after World War I, that potentially adverse post-war effects of expanded production would require some compensatory action.
One long-term action was to continue the previous century’s policy of rural teaching and training, under the Bankhead-Flanagan Act signed on June 6, 1945—less than a month after V-E Day. The focus on rural training included enhanced cooperation among the state experiment stations and the land grant colleges in investigating the scientific, technical, economic issues relating to agriculture. The Agricultural Marketing Act and the Research and Marketing Act both passed in 1946, and they broadened the USDA’s authority to include the marketing, transportation, and distribution of agricultural products, while also emphasizing research in human nutrition.
Easier credit for farmers returning from World War II also remained a significant issue. Congress reorganized the Farm Security Administration under the Farmers Home Administration Act of 1946, to insure loans and provide for emergency crop and feed loan programs. Three years later, a Disaster Loan Act extended this assistance to farmers recovering from natural disasters. A revolving fund of credit was made permanent by the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) Charter Act of 1948. The Act also financed credit sales of commodities such that, over the years, the CCC and its programs have resulted in billions of dollars’ worth of surplus agricultural commodity exports and overseas market development.
Approved in 1942, the Steagall Act required government support of certain commodity prices for two years following the end of the war. Set to expire at the close of 1948, the price supports were extended two years under the Agriculture Act of 1948, and they continued along a 60-90% range of parity after 1950. Federal expenditures for agriculture grew nearly eight times over the two decades from 1940 to 1960, from $369 million to $2.6 billion.
Falling on the heels of the 1948 Act, the Agricultural Act of 1949 amended the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 and established the combined policy of flexible price supports with acreage controls. The Act also authorized, for the first time, the donation of surplus commodities to alleviate hunger oversees, which would become an important element of “Food for Peace.” This program was the principal authority for America’s international food aid for three decades. Domestically, price support through food aid, along with concerns about malnutrition affecting military readiness of soldiers in World War II, were some of the motives behind the National School Lunch Act of 1946. The permanent program was boosted in 1962 by additional legislation aimed at promoting nutrition in economically depressed areas.
The immediate post-war period marked the beginning of the Committee’s formal jurisdiction over agricultural issues as defined by Senate Rule in the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. The Act reduced the number of the Senate’s standing committees from 33 to 15, and set out the first written statements of each committee’s jurisdiction. The measure primarily confirmed the authority that the Agriculture and Forestry Committee already had, with the addition of sole jurisdiction over farm credit and farm security, which it had formerly shared with the Committee on Banking and Currency. Over the course of two months in 1955, the Committee created its first five standing subcommittees as a way of diffusing power that had been accumulating to the committee chairmen following the consolidation of standing committees after 1946.
For the next sixteen years, including all of the turbulent 1960s, the Committee was chaired by Allen Ellender (LA). During this period, Congress passed the Soil Bank Act of 1956 which sought to build upon previous conservation efforts by creating the Soil Bank Program which paid farmers to reduce plantings of commodities in favor of conserving uses. Congress also updated laws dealing with loans to family farmers through the Consolidated Farmers Home Administration Act of 1961. The Agricultural Act of the same year, refined through more than 20 days of Senate Agriculture Committee hearings, opened up participation in the water system program to the general rural population. The next year, the Talmadge-Aiken Act authorized a closer cooperation with the states in administering agricultural laws through legislation like the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 and the Wholesome Poultry Products Act of 1968. Finding resistance to mandatory price controls, Congress in the early- to mid-1960s began to redesign programs to provide income support through direct payments to farmers rather than by keeping the prices high. Price support loans were set at or near lower world price levels, in order to keep U.S. prices competitive.
The food stamp program, which first operated on a pilot basis in 1939-43, was reinstated by President Kennedy in 1961 and solidified by Congress under the Food Stamp Act of 1964. National attention to hunger and poverty intensified throughout the decade: in 1961 the Agriculture Committee held a single hearing on nutrition programs; in 1969, food stamps, school lunch, and child nutrition was the subject of seven days of hearings. The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 was an example of the Committee moving towards social programs that addressed the concerns and conditions of families across the country. Throughout the ‘60s, programs like the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program and Special Milk Program were expanded by Congress “as a measure to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children, and to encourage the domestic consumption of agricultural and other foods, by assisting States, through grants-in-aid and other means, to meet more effectively the nutritional needs of our children.” The Committee of the 1960s was dominated almost completely by Southern Senators; they chaired all five of its subcommittees. The abiding diversity of the Committee rank and file membership at the close of the decade, however, was represented by one notable newcomer from Kansas—future presidential candidate Robert Dole.
In the early 1970s, many analysts were grimly forecasting that the world’s need for food would outstrip its productive capacity. The Senate Agriculture Committee confronted these problems throughout the ’70s under the chairmanship of Georgia’s Herman Talmadge, who represented a continuation of the South’s domination of the Committee’s leadership. Beginning with the Agricultural Act of 1970, cropland set-aside rules replaced allotments for grains and cotton, and for the first time placed a limit on farm program assistance paid to any one individual. Spending on farm programs more than doubled by the end of the decade (and tripled before the end of just another six years).
The Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act of 1973 set the pattern for later farm bills. It was a truly omnibus bill, which provided for commodity price support, soil conservation, and food stamp expansion for four years—establishing a cycle that ensured the next three farm bills appeared on the congressional agenda after presidential elections, and thereby preventing them from becoming entangled in election-year politics. The Food and Agriculture Act of 1977 continued the market-oriented loan and target-pricing policies of its predecessor. Title XIV of the Act confirmed the USDA’s historic role in agricultural research under the National Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Policy Act. The bill also made major modifications to food stamps and solidified the program as a part of the Farm Bill.
Also in 1977, as a result of Senate committee reorganization and a nod to the Committee’s increased role in addressing hunger and nutrition, and growing spending for federally-supported child nutrition (which rose from $2.4 billion to more than $8 billion during the decade), the Committee changed its name for the first time since adding “Forestry” in 1884. For the rechristened Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, the 1970s and ’80s was a time of rapid growth in staff, rising from seven in 1971, to 32 in 1980, to 44 by 1990. (The Committee is staffed today by 37.)
The staff-trimming that began in the 1990s mirrored a trend in restraints on spending for entitlement programs. Budget reconciliation acts had already begun imposing fiscal restraints under the Food Stamp Act of 1980 and the Agriculture and Food Act of 1981. The grain embargo on the Soviet Union, enforced as a sanction for its invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, caused some importers to diversify in search of more reliable market sources, while a rising dollar made American commodities more expensive than other exporters’. Farmers were facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. High debt loads coupled with high interest forced many farmers into bankruptcy in numbers not seen since the 1930’s, requiring support to keep the farm credit system from collapsing. Protection against these conditions and a serious recession in the farm sector were addressed by the Food Security Act of 1985. Later amendments promoted exports through export subsidies and substantial credit guarantees rather than direct loans. To further restrict spending, in 1994 the Committee’s outgoing and incoming chairmen—Patrick Leahy (VT) and Richard Lugar (IN), respectively—led a successful bipartisan effort to streamline and decrease the size of the USDA.
The 1996 omnibus Farm Bill, known as the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act (FAIR), revised direct payment programs to separate, or “decouple,” them from planting restrictions and free farmers to produce what markets were demanding. Within a year, however, the Asian financial crisis quickly impacted global prices and led to repeated annual ad hoc supplemental payments to shore up farm incomes.
The 2002 Farm Bill (the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act), debated in the House in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, addressed the full array of the Committee’s traditional concerns, including ecology, energy, trade, and nutrition, and did so in the unusual context of a Federal budget surplus. Increased funds for farm programs offered the Committee the opportunity to address the long period of low prices since 1997 by turning the annual ad hoc “Market Loss Assistance” payments into a permanent supplemental decoupled payment, the new Countercyclical Payments (CCP) program. At the same time, repeated weather disasters added to the series of ad hoc measures during the period, leading to a reform of the Federal Crop Insurance Program through the Agricultural Risk Protection Act of 2000. New revenue insurance programs and increased premium subsidies helped to move crop insurance into the mainstream of U.S. farm policy.
The new millennium saw a brief transfer of Committee leadership from Senator Richard Lugar to Senator Tom Harkin (IA) in 2001. Whereas Senator Lugar’s priority had been bringing a risk management focus to U.S. agriculture programs, Senator Harkin brought a strong conservation focus to the 2002 Farm Bill. Senator Harkin’s signature Conservation Security Program (later renamed the Conservation Stewardship Program) expanded agricultural conservation programs beyond traditional erosion control and land retirement to create incentives for more intensive environmental practices. He also championed the growing focus on conservation programs on “working lands” rather than the land retirement focus of the Conservation Reserve Program. The 2002 Farm Bill also included the Organic Agriculture Act, which signaled another new avenue of support for alternative production practices.
Another sign of changing times for agriculture in the new millennium was the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act, part of the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004, that ended the long-time tobacco price support program and coincided with the judicial tobacco settlement that required the major tobacco companies to compensate the states for health care costs associated with tobacco use.
Farmers also benefited from the renewed concern about energy availability that led to establishment of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and kicked off the ethanol boom. While the Senate Agriculture Committee did not originate the legislation, its establishment contributed to the high commodity prices that affected the direction of the next two Farm Bills.
A focus on agriculture’s wider impact may be seen in the very name of the next Farm Bill, the “Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008. The 2008 Farm Bill established the first ever “specialty crop title,” a suite of programs related to horticulture, organic agriculture, and local food systems. Key among new provisions for agriculture was also a suite of disaster programs intended to remove the need for nearly annual ad hoc legislation to provide relief in the wake of natural disasters. The crop program—Supplemental Revenue Assistance (SURE)—was not renewed in 2014, as producers preferred crop insurance, but the livestock and tree assistance programs were popular and have become permanent programs. The Food Stamp Program saw new investments in benefits, and it was also renamed as the “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.” Among the Farm Bill’s $288 billion in appropriations were an increase in food assistance benefits, increased support for the production of energy, and research of pests, diseases, and other threats to agricultural productivity.
With the opening of the 111th Congress in 2009, the Senate Agriculture Committee celebrated a milestone in its history when Senator Blanche Lincoln (AR) became the first woman to chair the committee, followed immediately by Senator Debbie Stabenow (MI) in 2011. The Committee responded to the 2008 financial crisis by passing legislation to address the systemic risks posed by swaps and other derivatives, giving the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) broad new authority to regulate those markets through the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. The Committee also reauthorized the underlying laws covering child nutrition programs in 2010 through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. This law expanded access to school meals and made the most significant modification to reforms to school meal standards and school wellness in over 30 years.
The Committee entered the second decade of the 21st century facing renewed budget constraints under the Budget Control Act, as well as a weakening of the traditional farm and food programs from the Tea Party-led efforts to cut government spending across the board.
With commodity prices at record highs, support for spending on commodity programs faltered as the rest of the economy slowly recovered from the Great Recession. Under the leadership of Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, first working with Ranking Member Pat Roberts (KS) and subsequently Ranking Member Thad Cochran (MS), the 2014 Farm Bill saw the end of the 1996 decoupled direct payments, replaced by new farm programs that triggered decoupled payments when prices or revenues fell, and the replacement of dairy price support with an insurance-like risk management program. Recognizing the growing interest in diverse agriculture, the 2014 Farm Bill continued to expand programs related to horticulture or specialty crops, organics, and local food systems. The bill consolidated the number of conservation programs from 23 to 13 and shifted funding from land retirement programs into working lands programs with a focus on locally led public-private partnerships. Eligibility for crop insurance premiums was linked to conservation compliance for the first time since 1996. Further variations in the names of the Act’s two proposed successors in 2013 explicitly highlighted yet other dimensions to agricultural policy’s traditional concerns: risk management (in the “Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Bill”), and jobs (in the “Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Bill”). The Farm Bill that finally passed as the simply-named Agricultural Act of 2014 authorized $956 billion in spending over the subsequent ten years, with the vast bulk funding food assistance and supplemental nutrition.
Senator Pat Roberts has chaired the Committee since 2015. Working closely with Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, he led the enactment of the current Farm Bill, which largely continues existing policies after efforts in the House debate to make major modifications to eligibility requirements for the SNAP program fell short. Among the new initiatives included in the bill is the legalization of hemp and permanent mandatory funding for local food investments, export promotion, nutrition incentives, organic research, beginning and minority farmer programs, and animal disease prevention efforts.
The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 was signed into law on December 20, 2018 after passing by a historic bipartisan margin of 87-13 votes in the Senate (the most “yea” votes ever recorded for a Farm Bill in the Senate) and 369-47 votes in the House.
Current major legislation before the Committee includes reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Programs, which covers the National School Lunch Program and was last reauthorized by the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, and reauthorization of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), last reauthorized in 2008 and a significant regulator of financial instruments associated with the 2008 financial crisis.
Since its creation on December 9, 1825, the Senate Agriculture Committee has counted more than 300 Senators among its members, representing a wide range of states, interests, and party affiliations. Membership has included legislative titans like Henry Clay (KY); presidential nominees such as Robert Dole (KS) and George McGovern (SD); and legislative pioneers like Hattie Caraway (AR), the first popularly-elected woman to sit in the Senate. No Senate committee has a wider scope of responsibilities. Under the current Standing Rule XXV, these range from agricultural research and education, price stabilization, farm credit, crop insurance, commodity futures markets, and food assistance, to meat inspection, the Forest Service, soil and freshwater conservation, rural development and electrification, and of course supplemental nutrition programs, including the school lunch program. Confronting the variety of complex issues linked to American agriculture—including some that would once have seemed the stuff of science fiction, such as climate change and the role of biotechnology and other emerging technologies—is a challenge that the Committee, with its proud tradition, promises to meet.
Note: This brief history was largely compiled from documents prepared by Committee staff members in 1970 and 1986, and by Tom Fulton for the Committee’s 175th anniversary in 1999, and from the invaluable editing and updating contributed by Anne Effland Senior Economist in the Office of the Chief Economist, USDA.
—William diGiacomantonio, Chief Historian, U.S. Capitol Historical Society