The 2020 elections ushered in a new era of leadership – and a different set of priorities – for food and agriculture. Expect to see a much more aggressive focus on social issues and climate change from both Congress and the new Biden Administration. While Covid, the farm economy, and trade relations with China also will remain front and center on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, don’t look for radical change in agricultural policy that will substantively change the food picture for American consumers or foreign customers.
The Changing Cast of Players
The new Congress and Administration will feature some new names in key roles for shaping our nation’s food and agriculture system. And while some familiar from the Obama Administration, experienced old hands in ag matters also will show up on the leadership roster, they will have an agenda that differs significantly from the past four years – and just as likely, a different approach to the role of government.
On Capitol Hill, long-time House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) is being replaced by Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.).
On the Senate side, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is expected to return to her previously-held role during the Obama Administration as chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Another familiar name from the Obama Administration – Tom Vilsack — also has been tapped to return as Secretary of Agriculture. Some elements of the left-wing of the Democrat Party have been critical of his nomination due to his familiarity with traditional farm and food organizations, as well as his past comments on climate change and minority relations. But Vilsack brings extensive experience and knowledge of all aspects of the food system. He has enjoyed the support of a wide spectrum of the agricultural community throughout his extensive career in public service.
A Rare Glimpse of Bipartisanship
Food and agricultural policy has been one of the few examples of functional bipartisanship, crafting farm bills running hundreds of pages. This daunting task demands cooperation and a willingness to listen and compromise, among dozens of committee members representing rural, suburban, and urban interests. They cover everything from production agriculture to nutrition to rural development to commodity markets to SNAP to bioenergy – and a long list of all the policy matters that make our food system function. Between farm bills, the committees wrestle with the same dynamics in dealing with individual legislative proposals that emerge in every Congress.
The unique world of food and agriculture has helped foster a spirit of bipartisanship not often found elsewhere on Capitol Hill. That’s not to say there aren’t sharp differences in ideology or priorities or approaches. And as the committee membership continues to become more inclusive and diverse – with expanding representation from outside the rural sector – the potential for sharp differences certainly increases.
These committees share and are united by a recognition of the critical importance of providing not just Americans but others around the world with the safe, nutritious and affordable food they need, produced responsibly and sustainably.
Together, they have built the framework of the rules of the road that make such a remarkable food system possible.
In such an environment, the leaders from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue become especially important to continuing the bipartisan process. They must be solid leaders – knowledgeable of both the broad issues and specific details of farm policy, and highly skilled in building bridges with committee members and the rest of the Congress. They have no choice in the matter. Farm legislation simply can’t pass without the support of a diverse congressional membership that increasingly is urban and suburban, not uniquely rural.
Both outgoing House Agriculture Committee Chair Rep. Collin Peterson and Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Sen. Pat Roberts are widely regarded as consummate diplomats and political bridge-builders. It’s now up to Rep. Scott and Sen. Stabenow to maintain that spirit in an era of the continuing partisan divide. With both committees divided into almost equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, that means their relationships with the ranking minority members of each committee will be very important.
In the House, that role goes to Rep. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania. As another long-standing member of the panel, Thompson also has extensive first-hand experience in farm-related legislation. He also brings a particularly strong focus on education, including support for wider educational opportunities at land-grant colleges and universities, as well as strong advocacy for expanded access to better health care, especially in rural areas.
On the Senate side, the role of ranking minority member will go to Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas. He also brings an extensive record of service on the committee, as well as the highly important Senate Appropriations Committee. He has served on various subcommittees deal with a spectrum of key food and agricultural issues, from production agriculture, conservation, nutrition, and research. His background as a small business owner and an expert in health care matters also are noteworthy.
New Players, New Agenda
The new leadership group undoubtedly brings a lot of experience in food and agriculture to the table. But the challenges confronting the American food system are very different from just a few short years ago. The change in administration brought a new and updated set of priorities – and a very different view of the role of government in dealing with those challenges.
Expect to see Congress and the Biden Administration focus on:
- Covid-19. Stemming the spread of the virus will be the most visible immediate priority not just for the agriculture committees but the entire government. Access to vaccines in rural areas will be high on the agenda, as will continuing economic support for those most damaged by the lockdown.
- Climate change. Don’t look for omnibus “climate change’ legislation from either ag committee as much as efforts to promote conservation and other regenerative environmental practices by farmers and ranchers through expansion of existing programs and additional incentives for responsible, environmentally beneficial farming practices, all carefully couched and presented as ‘climate change’ initiatives. Many immediate actions are likely to involve a flurry of executive orders rather than time-consuming and contentious legislation. The creation of a ‘carbon market’ for agriculture will be a popular item for debate. (D2D will look at climate-related issues in more depth in future posts.
While the focus on climate change comes as no surprise, the farm community anxiously awaits some sign of the approach to be taken. Farm leaders urge policymakers to think in terms of carrots rather than sticks. That is, they note that the farm community by and large is supportive of the broad effort to act responsibly on matters that affect the climate, and the environment.
Policies that incentivize and reward positive actions will work better than threats of punishment for failure to comply. That approach is best in unleashing the creative and entrepreneurial capabilities of the farm sector, far more than an imposition of rules and regulations devised solely or largely by bureaucrats.
- Rural economic development and revitalization. After years of declining net farm income and massive direct government payments, both legislators and administration officials will be looking at bigger, more comprehensive packages to stimulate rural economic vitality. Look for initiatives to promote growth in ‘green’ jobs, expand health care services and improve broadband access.
- Social equity. Congressional leaders, in particular, have been outspoken in the need to address perceived economic inequities, notably for smaller farm operators and minority farmers and ranchers. Prominent Democrats also have called for immediate attention to farm labor issues, to address matters of wages, work conditions, organizing rights, and other concerns.
- Relations with China. No market remains more important to the economic interests of farmers and ranchers. Efforts to promote improved relations and fulfillment of ambitious purchase commitments by the Chinese will remain top priorities. But expect a more studied effort to assess overall U.S. China relations, of which agricultural interests are just one part of the bigger picture of future relations between the two countries. Also, look for greater movement toward a multilateral team approach – especially with the EU – from the Biden Administration – It will be a movement away from the bilateral approach of recent years to more emphasis on building coalitions capable of exerting influence on the Chinese.
- Improved trade opportunities. The ‘America first’ approach of recent years is likely to evolve into a more traditional model of negotiation, built around ‘constructive engagement.’ Bilateral trade negotiations to open new market opportunities will no doubt continue. But also look for much more energy behind attempts to revive and rejoin broader trade initiatives and agreements, notably in the Pacific and among long-standing U.S. allies.
- Don’t rock the boat. Basic farm programs and policies have worked well for years, providing Americans (and others around the world) with a steady supply of affordable, nutritious, safe, and expanding food choices. No one in government wants to change the basic direction of our farm and food policies or to risk radical changes that harm the hard-won framework of rules, protections, and incentives that makes such a system possible. But there is a strong new commitment to making the system work better for all those involved in the system, and to address the legitimate environmental issues and questions arising from the climate change debate.
Beyond the Agriculture Committees
The agriculture committees undeniably make up the center of gravity in crafting food and agricultural policy. But other parts of Congress also come into play.
- Taxes. Any farmer will quickly point out that farming is a capital-intensive business. Finance and money management are critical skills – and a major area of interest, especially when candidates and elected officials in a new political era have made the issue of “revenue” a major target area for attention.
Continuing economic challenges from the pandemic, coupled with a generally more ambitious agenda of government initiatives, mean an almost certain review and revision of tax laws. It will likely involve examining a range of tax policies, including capital gains, gift taxes, inheritance taxes, accounting rules, and more.
For an economic sector largely based on family ownership and reliant on land values as a key element of their financial strength, these are highly important subjects. Expect the food and agriculture community to keep a close eye on the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, and the new Biden Administration’s role in shaping any changes to tax laws.
- Technology. Advances in technology are sweeping across the global agricultural system. Congress is trying to keep pace. The current focus on communication technology is expanding to cover other areas, with the gradual emergence of a variety of science and technology groups advocating a re-think of how Congress deals with the need to better understand and constructively guide the sector’s expanding role in all aspects of life, from the farm to the dinner table. Keep an eye on this wild-card in the emerging new era of government.
- Health care. The pandemic helped focus attention on the need to improve health-care delivery across the country, in particular in the rural areas underserved by the existing system. The Biden Administration has made economic revitalization of rural America a priority, and expansion of health care services and facilities should be a substantial component of that effort. Look for additional collaboration between the Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, as well as a greater collaborative effort among all health-related departments and agencies.
- Infrastructure. Like health care, the broad issue of improving the nation’s crumbling infrastructure also will have implications for the agricultural community and all of rural America. Maintenance of roads and bridges is a key component of the modern food chain, and most local authorities will agree that more needs to be done to maintain and improve what already exists. The big question will be not so much where such efforts should be focused, but how to pay for them.
- Research. The Department of Agriculture and congressional committees traditionally made science and research a key element of their policy agenda. The new administration has made “science-based” decision-making a fundamental plank of their campaign. The agricultural community is waiting anxiously to see exactly what that means – in terms of the decisions to be made regarding the role of genetics in expanding food production, and the willingness of the government to continue sharing the financial burden of aggressive research on food and environmental matters.
The Bottom Line
A careful mix of new faces and old hands will guide U.S. farm and food policy debate in the year ahead. But the roster of issues that will occupy these leaders is likely to be bigger and more far-reaching than we’ve seen in the past four years, with a larger role for the government in addressing social and environmental matters as a top priority. We’re likely to see increased public attention to the role played by rural America in our society – but with little, if any immediate effect on the availability and affordability of the food we have on hand.