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Politics in ’21: Part gridlock, part compromise?

CHIP SOMODEVILLA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images New Congress orientation
Newly elected members of Congress attend an orientation on Capitol Hill Nov. 13.
Changes in USDA, agricultural committee leadership could affect farm legislation.

With a new president and razor-thin margins in both houses of Congress, the political landscape in 2021 could portend long periods of gridlock punctuated by opportunities for compromise.

President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated Jan. 20 after a historically close election, having pledged to make combatting climate change one of his top priorities. He has nominated former Sen. John Kerry as his “climate czar,” and he has big plans for agriculture; his plan calls for harnessing the power of ag to capture and store carbon while innovating to reduce its own carbon footprint, according to The Hill.

But getting his agenda through Congress won’t be easy. He’ll be working with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose margin for error shrank notably in the Nov. 3 election, and with a Senate expected to remain in Republican hands pending the results of the Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia.

And some of the steady hands that have guided previous farm proposals through the legislative process are gone. Longtime ag champion Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., relinquished his gavel on the House Agriculture Committee after losing his re-election bid, while Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, his Senate ag committee counterpart, retired.

“Losing Peterson was a big deal because he was very much middle-of-the-road,” said Dan Sumner, director of the University of California’s Agricultural Issues Center in Davis. “He was a long-term supporter of dairy and sugar and of farm programs, and he got along with folks. If you said, ‘I need something for our vegetable guys’ … he was a business-as-usual kind of guy.”

Much will depend on how well the new leaders can balance environmental protection and economic needs, Sumner observes.

“For some people, when it’s the environment versus the economy, the environment ought to win,” he said.

USDA a key partner

Biden is eyeing the USDA as a key partner in achieving his climate goals, but some of the names floated as ag secretary in the weeks following the election drew pushback from environmental groups, The Hill reported. Among them was former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who has strong moderate credentials but has been criticized on the left for accepting campaign contributions from large agribusiness.

Heitkamp was one of eight people said to be in the running for the USDA post at press time. The only name from the West gaining a mention was California Department of Food and Agriculture secretary Karen Ross, who was retained by Gov. Gavin Newsom after having served his predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown.

Whether or not Ross leaves for Washington, California could gain more of a voice in the farm-legislation process. The San Joaquin Valley’s Rep. Jim Costa was one of at least two Democrats to throw his hat in the ring for ag committee chairman and actively campaigned for the post.

The post was given to Rep. David Scott of Georgia, who has seniority over Costa.

“There is the potential for Congressman Costa to play a very significant role” in ag legislation, said Ryan Jacobsen, the Fresno County Farm Bureau’s chief executive officer. “He understands not just valley agriculture; he’s been in D.C. long enough that he’s part of the leadership on the agricultural side … Jim could be a very good advocate on the majority side in the House.”

Farm groups' agenda

For their part, farm groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation will begin 2021 with their own agenda. The AFBF’s priorities include expanding trade and market access for American farm goods, completing the rural broadband grid and continuing regulatory reform, AFBF President Zippy Duvall said.

As for climate-smart farming, “we look forward to building on the great strides agriculture has made in reducing per-unit emissions and caring for the land, water and air – all while feeding a growing population,” he said.

“Unprecedented challenges require courageous leadership and the willingness of all elected leaders to work across the aisle for the good of the nation,” he said. “Agriculture provides a strong model for that, with a long tradition of aligning behind smart policy, not party lines.”

One strategy that farm groups may use is to work with environmental advocates to advance compromises. In 2020, the AFBF teamed with the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, the National Farmers Union to form the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance.

The group’s recommendations follow three principles:

  • Ag and forestry climate policies be built around voluntary, incentive-based programs and market opportunities.
  • They must promote resilience and adaptation in rural communities.
  • They must be “science-based.”

Among the alliance’s policy recommendations, according to a news release:

  • Foster the development of private sector GHG markets. The public sector should ensure that verifiable reductions occur and provide farmers and forest owners with the technical support needed to participate. 
  • Incentivize farmers to reduce energy consumption and increase on-farm renewable energy production.
  • Increase federal investment in agriculture, forestry and food-related research substantially and continuously.

“We began discussions not knowing whether we would ultimately reach agreement,” Duvall said. “It was important to me to reject punitive climate policy ideas of the past in favor of policies that respect farmers and support positive change.”

Immigration reform?

Farm groups will also likely keep pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, but the UC’s Sumner has his doubts as to whether such a bill would pass.

“I have no idea,” he said. “It’s such a frustrating thing for people on both sides.”

Sumner hopes lawmakers “can do some easy stuff,” such as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The proposal to grant conditional residency with the right to work for qualifying immigrants who were brought to the United States as children has been languishing in Congress for 20 years.

“I do think there are some things … a majority of the country would support, that both sides would say, ‘I think it will help our side,’” he said. “One is that some high school and college kids get to become Americans.”

Sumner said he has taught “dreamers” in his classes, including one student whose parents emigrated from Mexico when he was a baby.

“He’s just a remarkable young man,” Sumner said.

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