Agricultural producers, along with almost everyone else, are looking forward to 2021 and putting the challenges of 2020 behind them. With hopes for COVID-19 vaccines and improved public health, many are looking for a further rebound in economic activity in the new year. For agriculture, some of the improved prospects have already been realized with improved exports and farm income levels, and further recovery could provide some improved stability.
However, for agriculture, 2021 will also shake up the current policy landscape in Washington, D.C. Pending the resolution of final challenges to the 2020 election results, and also the Jan. 5 runoff election for both Georgia Senate seats, there could be substantial changes ahead with major implications for agriculture.
New secretary of agriculture
One of the first changes will be a new nominee for secretary of agriculture. While still awaiting any official announcement as of this writing, the general speculation has centered on three names, ranging from former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., or former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a Democrat from Iowa, to current Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio. Fudge is the only one of the three to openly signal her interest in the position, and she has garnered support from a number of organizations and fellow members of Congress. Fudge has represented a mostly urban and suburban district from Cleveland south to Akron since 2009, and she currently serves as Chair of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations.
With her background and focus, Fudge has been a champion of the nutrition and food assistance programs within USDA and would certainly bring a new perspective to the role of ag secretary. By comparison, either Heitkamp or Vilsack would bring a more traditional ag-centric perspective to the position. This potential choice between an ag perspective and an urban and nutrition focus could be an early indicator of Biden’s efforts to juggle the priorities and preferences of his Democratic base, vs. his outreach to an agricultural and rural sector that largely voted for Trump in the election.
New ag committee leaders
Capitol Hill will also look very different for agriculture, with three new ag committee leaders out of four following retirements and election results. In the Senate, Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., returns to serve as ranking member of the ag committee, pending the outcome of the Georgia runoff election and the balance of control in the Senate. On the Republican side, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., retired after many years of service, including the unique experience of chairing both the Senate and the House ag committees through the writing of (separate) farm bills. John Boozman, R-Ark., is the presumed replacement.
In the House, Democrats held control of the House in the 2020 election, but the current ag committee chair, Democrat Rep. Collin Peterson, lost his bid to continue serving his district in west and northwest Minnesota. Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., has been announced as the incoming chair, bringing his longtime experience on the committee to the position as well as his attention to a range of issues, including food assistance. On the Republican side, Rep. Mike Conaway R-Texas, the ranking member, also retired, opening the door to a longer list of potential replacements — including Republican Reps. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania, Austin Scott of Georgia, and Rick Crawford of Arkansas, among others.
The pending changes in ag committee leadership suggest a big shift in perspective from Midwest and Great Plains agriculture (Roberts, Peterson and Conaway) to other regions of the country. That is not to say that the new leaders won’t bring a broad ag perspective, but the program crop mix in the Southeast or the diversified crop and livestock perspective in Pennsylvania could all change the tenor of discussion. As noted, Stabenow will inherit seniority among the “Big Four,” but she, too, brings a different perspective to the discussion with more attention on specialty crops, dairy and conservation.
The changes in committee leadership may not imply significant changes in ag policy immediately, but they will set the stage for the coming debate on what should be the 2023 Farm Bill. Before then, the ag committees may be most involved in addressing the ag impacts and opportunities of broader policy initiatives and issues, including environmental, climate, biofuels and trade policies, among others.
Changes in policy
There are general expectations that the administration of President-elect Joe Biden will push environmental policy to reverse some or the regulatory rollback of the Trump administration, particularly the Waters of the United States/Navigable Waters Protection Rule (WOTUS/NWPR). The Trump administration pushed to roll back the WOTUS definition implemented by the Obama administration, and now the new White House could push to roll back the rollback.
There are also expectations that the new administration will push for significant climate policy both internationally and domestically, including legislative proposals for greenhouse gas emissions regulations and limits. Congress last seriously considered climate legislation a decade ago, but seems ready to do so again, with ag interests and the ag committees looking closely at impacts on agriculture, and the potential opportunity to earn and sell carbon sequestration credits.
Biofuels face a crossroads at the present time, with questions about enforcement of the biofuel usage mandate legislated by the Renewable Fuels Standard weighed against exemptions granted to refineries that effectively reduce the mandate. This issue has dogged the outlook for the ethanol sector for some time, particularly now in an era where motor vehicle fuel usage seems to be trending down, and further ethanol usage gains would only come with increased use of higher blends. As of late 2020, we were still waiting for EPA to set usage requirements for the coming year and address pending exemption requests, but the issues could easily roll over into 2021 for the new administration to address. Add to that the potential legislative debate ahead over the future of the RFS after 2022, and the topic will be high on the radar for the administration and for this new session of Congress.
Trade is also an area where the Biden administration is expected to dramatically change course, addressing current trade conflicts through allied global efforts instead of the unilateral sanctions and confrontation of the Trump administration. That doesn’t mean that tariffs would be repealed and new agreements would be negotiated immediately, but the tone of discussion and level of conflict is certainly expected to change.
Beyond these issues, there are numerous other policy areas that the incoming Biden administration and a new Congress will need or want to address, including immigration, health care, tax policy, federal spending and potential further COVID-19 assistance, among others. Regardless of the issue, agriculture will be impacted, and the changes in leadership and policy directions and priorities will affect the outcome. The only constant is the need for agriculture and other interests to continue to be informed and engaged in the process.
Lubben is an Extension policy specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.