On motion of Mr. Williams of North Carolina, the House took up and proceeded to consider the resolution submitted by him on the 29th ultimo, for the appointment of a standing committee to be denominated “The Committee on Agriculture”; and the resolution was agreed to by the House, and ordered that the committee consist of seven members.1
Thus the Committee on Agriculture was created on May 3, 1820. The population of the country was about 9 million and there were 213 Representatives in the House. Seven of these Representatives, under the chairmanship of Thomas Forrest, of Pennsylvania, were assigned to the new committee. Six other States were represented in this group: Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia. (The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry was founded December 9, 1825.)
Lewis Williams, a Representative from Surrey County, N.C., elected to the 14th and 13 succeeding Congresses, and known as the "Father of the House," was the sponsor of the resolution proposing a Committee on Agriculture, and at the time of its introduction, April 29, 1820, he had this to say on the floor of the House:
Gentlemen, say that there are, in this country, three interests, the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing. And how happens it, sir, that the agricultural, the great leading and substantial interest in this country, has no committee; no organized tribunal in this House to hear and determine on their grievances? If the commercial or manufacturing interests are affected, the cry resounds throughout the country; remonstrances flow in upon us; they are referred to committees appointed for the purpose of guarding them, and adequate remedies are provided. But, sir, when agriculture is oppressed, and makes complaint, what tribunal is in this House to hear and determine on the grievances?2
While originally consisting of seven Members, the committee gradually increased in size. In 1835, the 23rd Congress increased the membership to nine, and then not until the 42nd Congress, in 1871, was it again increased, this time to 11. From then on there was a steady increase until the maximum was reached in the 107th Congress, 2001, when 51 Members were assigned to the committee and its five subcommittees.
At the present time, the committee, chaired by the Honorable K. Michael Conaway, a Republican representing the 11th District of Texas, consists of Republicans and Democrats.
Hon. Harold D. Cooley, a Democrat from North Carolina, served eight terms as chairman (1949-1953 & 1955-1976), longer than any previous head of the committee. Other chairman who served for long periods include James W. Wadsworth (New York) and Gilbert N. Haugen (Iowa), both Republicans, who served for six terms each. Marvin Jones, a Texas Democrat, and William H. Hatch, a Missouri Democrat, each served as chairman for five terms. Edmund Deberry, a North Carolina Whig, served for four terms.
The jurisdiction of the committee, as originally defined, covered simply "subjects relating to agriculture." In the revision of the rules of the House in 1880, the Committee on Rules proposed the same simple rule: "subjects relating to agriculture: to the Committee on Agriculture." However, during consideration by the House the words "and forestry" were inserted on motion of Mark H. Dunnell, of Minnesota, who said that bills relating to tree culture had formerly gone to the Public Lands Committee, but more recently had gone to the Agriculture Committee. Thus the broad field of forestry was included in the committee's jurisdiction. More important was an amendment by D. Wyatt Aiken, of South Carolina, adding these words to the description of the committee's jurisdiction: "who shall receive the estimates and report the appropriations for the Agricultural Department." Although there existed an Appropriations Committee, the Committee on Agriculture reported on Department of Agriculture appropriations from 1880 until July 1, 1920, when another revision of the rules of the House returned to the Appropriations Committee all jurisdiction over appropriations.
The committee has, by direct action of the House, secured jurisdiction over agriculturally related subjects. Thus the committee assumed jurisdiction for farm credit when the House referred to it the President's message dealing with the refinancing of farm-mortgage indebtedness on April 4, 1933, 73rd Congress.
The jurisdiction as presently defined in the Rules of the House of Representatives was made effective January 2, 1947, as a part of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, and is as follows:
- Adulteration of seeds, insect pests, and protection of birds and animals in forest reserves.
- Agriculture generally.
- Agricultural and industrial chemistry.
- Agricultural colleges and experiment stations.
- Agricultural economics and research.
- Agricultural education extension services.
- Agricultural production and marketing and stabilization of prices of agricultural products, and commodities (not including distribution outside of the United States).
- Animal industry and diseases of animals.
- Commodity exchanges.
- Crop insurance and soil conservation.
- Dairy industry.
- Entomology and plant quarantine.
- Extension of farm credit and farm security.
- Inspection of livestock, poultry, meat products, and seafood and seafood products.
- Forestry in general, and forest reserves other than those created from the public domain.
- Human nutrition and home economics.
- Plant industry, soils, and agricultural engineering.
- Rural electrification.
- Rural development.
- Water conservation related to activities of the Department of Agriculture.
In carrying out its responsibilities, the committee conducts hearings, some public and some in executive session, to consider various legislative proposals. It affords the general public the opportunity to express its views. Among the witnesses are representatives of farm organizations, consumer groups, and ordinary citizens. The sessions are held to perfect the details of the legislation. As the role of the farmer becomes more technical and industrialized, so will the role of this committee become more complex.
One of the very important functions of any committee is the reporting of legislation to the House. Designed to fully explain each piece of legislation approved by the committee, a "report" takes the form of a formal printed document and accompanies a bill as it goes to the House floor for action. It is also a reflection of the committee's interests. In recent Congresses, the reports of the Committee on Agriculture generally fill one volume of a few hundred pages. By comparison, all of the reports from the Agriculture Committee from the 16th to the 49th Congresses are bound in one volume.3
Of course, there have been many momentous and historical reports on legislation by the committee which have had a profound and lasting effect on the agricultural community and the Nation. The first reference to a Department of Agriculture was in "Ho. of Reps. Rep. No. 595," April 12, 1842:
The Committee on Agriculture, to which was referred the petition of Joseph L. Smith and others, praying for the establishment of a department of agriculture and education, have had the same under consideration, and beg leave to report the following resolution: Resolved. That it is inexpedient to grant the prayer of petitioners.
Proposals for a Department of Agriculture were made many times and in House Report 321 of August 5, 1856, the committee had this to say:
Agriculture is the basis of our national prosperity. It is the substratum of all other interests; and the degree of advancement which marks the progress of our country and its people in wealth, enterprise, education, and substantial independence, is measured by the prosperity of its rural interests. It is one of those arts which, from the earliest periods, have been deservedly held in the highest estimation. One of the first injunctions upon our original progenitor, after his expulsion from the Garden of Eden, was that he should "till the soil."
It was not until 1862 that a favorable report was acted on, which led to the establishment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture on May 15, 1862. But it was not of Cabinet rank. The first Commissioner of Agriculture was Isaac Newton, who inherited the staff of nine employees and facilities of the Agricultural Division of the Patent Office. The embryo department, a year later, had a horticulturist, a chemist, an entomologist, a statistician, an editor, and 24 others. Experimental work was done in a propagating garden bounded by what is now Madison and Adams Drives, and Fourth and Sixth Streets. When no longer needed by the Union Army for a cattle yard, a larger area between Independence and Constitution Avenues, and 12th and 14th Streets was transferred to the Department. The appropriation for the first year was $80,000.
Although many urged that the Department be an executive department with a secretary who would be a member of the President's Cabinet, it was 27 years before Congress elevated it to a Cabinet status in 1889. At this time, the Department consisted of 488 employees and an had annual appropriation of $1.1 million.
When the committee was established in 1820, the Nation was in its infancy. The population was 9,618,000, having more than doubled from the first census taken in 1790. By 1862, when the Department of Agriculture was founded, the population was up to 33 million. It had reached almost 107 million in 1920 when the committee marked its centennial, and the Census Bureau estimate for May of 2004 is over 300 million.
So, with a glance back at the growth of the United States, and a look ahead at the continued growth of both our domestic and the global population, it becomes unmistakably clear that nothing is more important to the welfare of Americans than the maintenance of a healthy agriculture, which is the continuing prime objective of the committee.
- From the Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States," 16th Cong., 1st sess., May 3, 1820.
- From "Annals of the Congress of the United States," 16th Cong., 1st sess., Saturday, Apr. 29, 1820.
- Reports of the Committee on Agriculture from the organization of the committee May 3, 1820, to the close of the 49th Congress, 1887, inclusive. Compiled. under the direction of the Joint Committee on Printing, by T. H. McKee, clerk, document room, U.S. Senate.