Boozman will play key role in farm bill no matter who controls Senate

Arkansas senator expects the bill’s path will be challenging, regardless of which party is in control

By: - August 17, 2022 8:00 am
U.S. Sen. John Boozman (R-AR) speaks during a press conference on inflation, at the Russell Senate Office Building on Feb. 16, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

U.S. Sen. John Boozman (R-AR) speaks during a press conference on inflation earlier this year, in Washington, D.C. Boozman is one of a number of GOP lawmakers who support keeping the Hyde Amendment. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Arkansas Sen. John Boozman will likely spend at least another six years as the state’s senior U.S. senator, if he wins reelection — a tenure that will place him atop the Senate’s Agriculture committee just as lawmakers undertake drafting the mammoth farm bill. 

The measure, passed every five years and expected to cost upwards of $648 billion, includes dozens of agricultural, rural development and nutrition programs.

Boozman won his May primary with 58% of the vote and has a significant fundraising advantage over Democratic challenger Natalie James in this fall’s election. His Senate seat is rated solidly safe for Republicans by national political analysts like The Cook Political Report with Amy Walters and Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.

If Republicans regain control of the Senate during the November midterm elections, Boozman would become the panel’s chairman and take the lead in writing the farm bill.

If Democrats maintain their majority, he’ll be the ranking member and would still play a significant role negotiating the bill in a chamber where bipartisanship is often key to advancing major legislation. The farm bill also usually draws support from both sides of the aisle.

“The last time, they had a record number of votes in the Senate,” Boozman said of the 2018 measure, which passed the Senate with 87 votes. “My goal is to surpass that, working with [Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie] Stabenow.”

Boozman expects the farm bill’s path through Congress will be challenging, regardless of which party controls the U.S. Senate. He said the high cost of fertilizer, fuel and labor as well as debates over nutrition programs will all complicate the process. 

“We’re in a very unusual time, a unique time that we haven’t seen in decades with high inflation,” Boozman said. “So when we write this farm bill, it’s going to be very different than the atmosphere when we wrote the last one.”

As one of the more unassuming politicians on Capitol Hill, Boozman tends to shy away from boisterous television hits or Twitter tirades that have come to mark Republican politics during the last six years. 

Despite his quieter profile, Boozman maintains a relatively good relationship with former President Donald Trump, securing his endorsement during this year’s Republican primary.

Boozman did, however, garner some criticism from Trump supporters following the former president’s second Senate impeachment trial when Boozman released a statement saying that Trump “bears some responsibility for what happened” on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of his supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol.

“January 6, 2021, will forever be remembered as one of the darkest days in our nation’s history,” Boozman said at the time. “The attack on the U.S. Capitol by a violent mob was a threat to our democracy. Courageous law enforcement officers defended lives and safeguarded the constitutional duty of Congress to certify the presidential election.”

Boozman also isn’t penning book deals or positioning himself for a presidential run the way Arkansas junior U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton has been — a decision that will likely avoid any potential future run-ins with the current GOP standard-bearer. 

A committee veteran

Boozman, instead, is known for his position on three of the Senate’s more collegial committees — Agriculture, Appropriations and Veterans Affairs. 

As part of his role on the latter two committees, Boozman had a hand putting together the sweeping, multibillion-dollar package that will provide health care and benefits to veterans exposed to burn pits and Agent Orange during deployments with the U.S. military. 

Boozman was one of just eight Senate Republicans who supported the bill throughout the process, including last month when dozens of his colleagues switched their votes to temporarily block the measure. 

Other Republicans’ choice to stall the package led to an outcry from veterans and their advocates, some of whom slept on the steps of the U.S. Capitol for days to bring attention to the issue and urge lawmakers to approve the bill.  

Boozman’s GOP colleagues, including Cotton, later reversed course, voting 86-11 to send The PACT Act, named for the late Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson of the Ohio National Guard, to President Joe Biden, who signed the measure last week. 

But Boozman said during his interview with States Newsroom that more work has to be done to ensure that the VA doesn’t get bogged down as veterans exposed to toxic substances pour into the system.

“You can have a really good benefit, but if you can’t use it because you have to wait forever for the health care that you’re entitled to, that’s not much of a victory,” he said.  

Same-sex marriage

Not all of Boozman’s policy goals, or political beliefs tend toward bipartisanship, however. 

He doesn’t plan to support a House-passed bill that would ensure same-sex couples can continue getting married if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the constitutional right it established in 2015. 

“I don’t know if it will come up in the Senate or not. But I think it’s unnecessary and so for that reason, I would vote against it,” he said, declining to elaborate. 

Democrats in Congress have put forward bills to enshrine protections for contraception and same-sex marriages after Associate Justice Clarence Thomas issued his own opinion in the abortion case this summer targeting those decisions. 

In that concurring opinion, Thomas wrote that the justices “should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents” that applied the same legal reasoning as Roe v. Wade had to abortion rights. That would include cases that enshrined the right to contraception, consensual private adult sexual relationships and marriage equality. 

Boozman said he believes Thomas’ view on overturning additional constitutional rights is “just his opinion” since no other justices signed on to his assessment. 

Boozman is solidly within his party’s mainstream on abortion, saying in a statement after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this summer to end the nationwide, constitutional right to an abortion that “with this ruling, the American people will finally have the opportunity to enact their will on this issue instead of unelected judges in Washington, D.C.”  

But Boozman doesn’t expect the U.S. Senate, under Republican control, would be able to pass a nationwide abortion law, citing the chamber’s 60-vote legislative filibuster. 

“The reality is with 60 votes and a Democratic president, nothing’s going to change,” he said.

Boozman also doesn’t believe Republicans in the Senate would be able to change a longstanding provision in government spending bills known as the Hyde Amendment that prevents federal funds from going to abortions with limited exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the woman. 

Some Republicans have called on Congress to remove the exceptions for rape and incest, arguing that no federal dollars should go toward abortions regardless of the reason. 

“When you look at the obstacles that it would take to get rid of those exceptions — unless one side gets over 60 members, which I don’t see happening anytime soon in the Senate, it’s simply not going to change,” Boozman said.  

Support for families

On legislation to provide support for parents and working families, like paid family leave or financial aid, Boozman said his “attitude is we need to take care of families in an appropriate way.”

“So the question is, what is an appropriate way? And everybody’s got different ideas,” Boozman said. 

Citing the nation’s deficit, interest rates, the trajectory of the overall economy and taxes, Boozman said, “there’s just a lot to think about as you talk about these.”

“How I look at it is, depending on the circumstances, what do we need to be doing for families?” Boozman said. “And what can we afford to do for families, because there is a finite amount of money that we have to work with.”

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Jennifer Shutt
Jennifer Shutt

Jennifer covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include congressional policy, politics and legal challenges with a focus on health care, unemployment, housing and aid to families.