capitolIn Congress, there are two committees on Agriculture, one in the House and one in the Senate. The House committee is comprised of six subcommittees and forty-five members. The Senate Committee is called the committee on “Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry,” with five subcommittees and twenty members.  There is currently a Republican chairman and majority, as the Republican party currently holds the House and Senate majority. Many of the members of this committee have an agriculture background, but it is not a necessary qualification to be on an Ag Committee, as they have advisors and other resources.

To help us understand Agriculture committees a little more, I asked Jonathan Coppess, University of Illinois professor of Agricultural Law and Policy, about his knowledge and experiences with Agriculture Committees in Washington DC:

Kylie: What is the purpose of an agriculture committee?

coppessJonathan: The Ag Committees are permanent or standing committees of Congress. They have jurisdiction over all legislation that involves agriculture or agricultural-related issues (such as food assistance, rural development, research and some environmental and energy issues). They write bills on these topics and review bills introduced by other members. For example, the Ag Committees periodically reauthorize the laws, programs, and policies pertaining to farming, rural development, and food assistance in what is commonly known as the Farm Bill. The committees will hold hearings on topics covered by the bill, negotiate the bill’s provisions amongst themselves and then other members or Senators on the House and Senate floors.  Finally, the committees have oversight responsibilities for USDA and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission.

Kylie: How much does an agriculture committee work with the United States Department of Agriculture?

Jonathan: In many ways, the committees write legislation that USDA must implement (e.g., farm bill). In doing so, they also work closely with USDA subject matter experts to get information, data, and feedback on existing programs to determine what should be revised or eliminated, or what new programs are needed.  Finally, the committees have oversight responsibilities of USDA, so they will investigate any problems or issues and review spending and operations.

Kylie: Can you explain what your job was in Washington DC?

Jonathan: I had three great jobs in DC. First, I was a legislative assistant to then-Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE). I worked on agriculture issues including the 2008 Farm Bill, as well as energy, environment, trade, and immigration. This involved advising the Senator on those issues, developing bills and meeting with constituents, interest groups and USDA officials. I prepared him for hearings, business meetings, speeches, etc.  My second job was Administrator of the Farm Service Agency at USDA. I was appointed to this position by the Secretary of Agriculture at the time, Tom Vilsack.  My responsibilities included managing the agency, giving direction on program implementation and operation (2008 farm bill programs), budget and personnel matters, working with other agencies and a few times I testified before Congressional committees.  Finally, my third job was as Chief Counsel to the Senate Ag Committee when Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) was chairwoman.  This job consisted mostly of helping and advising her as chair on the writing of what became the 2014 farm bill, which involved meetings and hearings, negotiating and drafting legislation, helping to manage the process (committee votes and votes on the floor, negotiations with other Senators, etc.).


Kylie Bohman
University of Illinois

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