Incoming Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow said Thursday that the confirmation hearing for Tom Vilsack, President Biden’s nominee for Agriculture secretary, scheduled for Tuesday, may depend on Senate leaders reaching agreement on a resolution for organizing the Senate.
In a call to reporters on her agenda for the 117th Congress, Stabenow said that she hopes Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will reach an agreement by this weekend or Monday.
Stabenow, D-Mich., said that she and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., the incoming ranking member, “are assuming that we will have our committee members” by Tuesday, but if they have not been announced she and Boozman “will have to figure out” what to do as other committees have when they have held confirmation hearings.
Stabenow said the number of members of the committee has not been determined, but it will be half Democrats and half Republicans. At present there are nine Republicans and nine Democrats remaining from the committee in the 116th Congress.
The situation on the Agriculture Committee in arranging the confirmation hearing has been more complicated than for other committees because the other committees have continued to be run by the Republican chairs from the 116th Congress. But Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who chaired Agriculture, has retired, and there has been no interim chair.
Stabenow was careful to call Boozman her “partner” and noted “We have worked together closely on many issues.”
Although Black farm and progressive leaders have criticized Vilsack, who was Agriculture secretary in all eight years of the Obama administration, Stabenow said she does not expect Vilsack to face any “contentious areas” at the hearing.
“I know he has strong bipartisan support,” she said,
“People know him and trust him. He is one of our top advocates for rural communities in the country.”
But she added that she also wants Vilsack to lay out his vision for the future.
The Biden administration’s announcement this week that it will suspend debt collections and foreclosures on all USDA farm loans “is a good step, but not sufficient in helping Black farmers,” she said.
Stabenow noted that the committee also has to hold confirmation hearings on other Biden administration officials, and said that “at the top of list” is a USDA undersecretary for rural development “working with us” to expand the internet, which is important to rural hospitals and schools.
“The key to our quality of life is high-speed internet,” she said.
Stabenow also said that for USDA undersecretary of trade “we need someone very robustly focusing on marketing” to make up for some of the problems caused by the Trump administration’s trade policy.
To address the climate crisis, Stabenow said she wants to “provide voluntary producer-led opportunities for farmers and foresters to cut down emissions and store more carbon.” She noted there are a number of climate-related bills before the committee but cited the Growing Climate Solutions Act she introduced with Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., as a starting point.
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The bill would direct the Agriculture Department to provide farmers with a structure and technical expertise through a website so that they can “feel comfortable measuring the carbon” and enter the carbon markets. She said she is “very pleased” that more than 50 organizations are supporting the bill and that some of the same organizations have formed their own coalitions to make recommendations. Carbon, Stabenow said, should be “a new commodity” for farmers.
Boozman also said this week that he wants climate-related farm programs to be voluntary. “The key is that agriculture has to benefit,” Boozman said in a virtual fireside chat with International Dairy Foods Association President and CEO Michael Dykes during IFDA’s Dairy Forum.
“So often agriculture is asked to do things and then doesn’t get compensated for it. I want it to be voluntary. I don’t want mandates to drive up costs for farmers. Then you get increased consolidation,” he said.
A climate program should “protect the climate and reduce input costs,” he said, noting that the dairy industry has done “a great job” reducing the number of cows and increasing milk production. Boozman said he would oppose a climate program that would be used “as a hammer so you are penalized and you don’t get to participate or it costs you.”
Speaking in general about the Biden administration, Boozman said he is “concerned about heavy-handedness,” about the administration rewriting the Waters of the United States rule again, and “about controlling land use out of Washington.”
Stabenow said she would like to move her Growing Solutions bill as a stand-alone measure out of committee but would also look for other ways to find more support for farmers.
“We cannot wait for the next farm bill” in 2023, she said, because the Great Lakes are “warming faster than the oceans,” causing problems in both cold-water fishing and agriculture.
“I feel a great urgency to get started. I will look at whatever vehicle allows us to do that,” she said.
The Commodity Credit Corporation, USDA’s line of credit at the Treasury Department, also could be a way to finance some climate-related activities, but she said she would want to talk to Vilsack about whether the CCC’s $30 billion annual limit on its spending needs to be increased and what authorities it has or might need. Stabenow said her view is that the CCC already has some authority to finance climate projects.
Stabenow said she wants to “move forward aggressively” because “there are so many issues affecting food and agriculture.”
“From the ongoing pandemic to the devastating climate crisis — our farmers, families, and rural communities need help,” she said. “My vision for the committee revitalizes our food and farm economy to grow new opportunities in American agriculture and provide access to healthy food for American families.”
Her first priority, Stabenow said, is to respond to COVID-19 by addressing the hunger crisis and repairing “the broken food supply chain.”
“The committee will prioritize improving access to food assistance to ensure that every family can put food on the table,” she said. “The committee will also proactively address disruptions across the supply chain that have created a ripple effect that has harmed farmers, food processors, and workers.”
Stabenow did not say exactly how she would address the supply chain problems that occurred early in the pandemic when meat plants shut down and the food service market disappeared for fruit and vegetable producers, forcing them to leave produce in the fields.
Stabenow said it is hard for her to believe, it is already time to think about passing another farm bill, but she wants “to make things better in the next round,” particularly for fruit and vegetable growers, local food systems and protection of land and water.
“Consistency is incredibly important to our farmers,” Stabenow said, adding that she is “looking at returning to the structure of the farm bill. Trump focused on doing things outside the structure of the farm bill.”
“We will be open and listen to everyone about what works and doesn’t work … throughout the year and next year,” she said.
Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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