How Does the Farm Bill Become Law? Our 10-Step Guide

Liza Lieberman
May 23, 2018

The reauthorization process for the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (HR. 2), commonly known as the Farm Bill, is underway. This massive piece of legislation sets U.S. policy for agriculture, conservation, and many other sectors, and provides structure and funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the cornerstone of our nation’s nutrition safety net. The Farm Bill is typically reauthorized every five years, and the current Farm Bill law is set to expire at the end of September 2018.

This legislation has major implications for our national food system, balancing the priorities and needs of those who produce food with those who consume it. The process can get a bit confusing, so here’s a quick refresher to explain the process for the Farm Bill to become law.

Before we dive into the steps, it’s important to note that the House and the Senate each independently introduce their own version of a Farm Bill. The two processes will often take place concurrently, and then converge in the conferencing process to form a unified bill. And with that, let’s begin.

How a Farm Bill Becomes Law:

The House and Senate Agriculture Committees independently hold hearings, then each draft and introduce Farm Bill legislation. At this point in the process, Members of Congress typically take into account the “score” or cost estimates for various policy proposals calculated by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

The House and Senate Agriculture Committees separately debate and “mark up” by editing or removing language from their respective Farm Bill drafts prior to their respective committee votes. Once passed, each bill is referred to the House or Senate floor for debate and consideration.


In the House, the Rules Committee sets parameters for whether/how Members can offer amendments to the legislation. While in the Senate, the Majority Leader traditionally holds this power, the House Rules Committee is the mechanism to maintain control and procedures for conducting business in the chamber. This committee decides which amendments will be allowed and the rules for legislative debate before the legislation can be debated and called for a vote.


House or Senate Leadership schedule a full chamber vote. In most cases, a bill must receive a majority of votes in order to pass.


Once both bills receive a majority vote in their respective chambers, select members of the House and Senate are appointed to a “Conference Committee” to negotiate and work out any differences between the two bills. If they are able to reach a compromise, a written report is submitted to each chamber.


The full House and Senate consider and vote on the unified legislation agreed on by the Conference Committee. If a majority is reached in both chambers, the Farm Bill heads to the President’s desk for final approval.


The President may sign or veto the bill. If signed, the bill becomes law, and if vetoed, it is returned to Congress.


Once the bill is signed into law, Congress must appropriate funding to federal agencies to implement the programs. While SNAP is a mandatory program—with funding guaranteed to all those who are eligible to receive benefits—several Farm Bill programs are discretionary and must be appropriated each year by Congress. This process begins with the Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittees in the House and Senate, which will eventually go to the two chambers’ full Appropriations Committees, then on to the full House and Senate.


The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)—which administers farm, agriculture, and nutrition programs—establishes rules and guidelines to implement Farm Bill programs. In the case of SNAP, state governments administer the program following USDA guidelines and criteria set by Congress.


The process starts all over again for the Farm Bill to be reauthorized (about every 5 years).