Washington Week Ahead: Senate set to question Biden’s USDA, EPA picks

Source: By Philip Brasher, Agri-Pulse • Posted: Sunday, January 31, 2021

Tom Vilsack gets a chance this week to outline his vision for a second stint at the Agriculture Department in which he will be expected to play a major role in carrying out President Joe Biden’s climate policy and racial justice agenda.

The Senate Agriculture Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Vilsack on Tuesday and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has a hearing Wednesday for Michael Regan, Biden’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Both Vilsack and Regan have broad support from farm groups.

Biden’s nominee for labor secretary, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, has his confirmation hearing on Thursday.

Vilsack, who served as agriculture secretary for all eight years of the Obama administration, suggested on a Colorado State University webinar last week that he may be reversing some policy and organizational changes carried out by the Trump administration.

Vilsack said USDA has undergone “a lot of change, a lot of transformation that has not necessarily been well-received, especially in the science area, and facing major, major issues.” He didn’t elaborate, but a top new adviser at USDA, Robert Bonnie, co-authored a report in November that called for significant increases of funding for climate science and warned that the new administration would face a “demoralized workforce” and large numbers of vacancies in the department.

Vilsack indicated in the webinar that his top challenges at USDA would include helping agriculture “lead the country to a better place as it tackles climate change” and ensuring that USDA “provides access to its programs to everyone, not just to a select and privileged few.”

The Senate Agriculture Committee is likely to be more of a conversation between old friends than a conventional hearing. Vilsack appeared before the hearing regularly while at USDA and was a key witness at a hearing on climate policy in May 2019 in his role as president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, who is replacing the retired Sen. Pat Roberts as the committee’s top Republican, told Agri-Pulse he expects to hear from Vilsack about climate policy, but Boozman also wants to raise concerns about the cuts to farm programs that the Obama White House proposed. Many were proposed by the Trump White House as well. In the cases of both administrations, the proposed cuts to crop insurance and other programs were summarily dismissed by Congress.

“We’re going to talk about the commitment they have to the farmer, the commitment to the farm programs,” Boozman said.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., plans to raise concerns about the Biden administration’s regulatory agenda, much of which involves other departments and agencies, including EPA. Fischer wants to press Vilsack on “the importance of bringing all stakeholders together when decisions are made on issues,” citing in particular the possibility that the administration will try once again to write a rule redefining the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.

An Obama-era “waters of the U.S.” rule that would have expanded federal jurisdiction to additional wetlands and other areas was repealed by the Trump administration and replaced by a more narrowly drawn Navigable Waters Protection Rule.

That issue is certain to surface as well on Wednesday during Regan’s Senate hearing.

Iowa GOP Sen. Joni Ernst, who is a member of both the Ag and EPW committees, got 24 of her Republican colleagues to co-sponsor a resolution that calls on the Biden administration to retain the Trump rule. The co-sponsors include the incoming senior Republican on EPW, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.

Biden signed an executive order on his first day in office Jan. 20 to require a review of that rule and many other major regulatory actions taken by the Trump administration.

Even as he tries to get Vilsack, Regan and other Cabinet picks installed, Biden and congressional Democrats continue to be locked in a standoff with Senate Republicans over his $1.9 trillion stimulus bill. The plan includes an extension of the 15% bonus in SNAP benefitsenacted in December, plus new aid for restaurants that provide meals to low-income people.

Democrats are threatening to use the budget reconciliation process to pass the measure. They wouldn’t need any Republicans to pass a reconciliation measure as they could get all 50 Democrats to vote for it. If Democrats decide to use conventional procedures, they will need at least 10 GOP votes to get the 60 votes necessary to pass it.

On Sunday, ten Republican senators announced in a letter that they were going to propose a compromise aid package that would include $160 billion for vaccines and stimulus provisions that would be targeted to those most in need. “Our proposal also includes economic relief for those Americans with the greatest need, providing more targeted assistance than in the Administration’s plan,” the letter said.

One of the ten senators, Rob Portman of Ohio, said Sunday on CNN that the proposal to be released on Monday was “more targeted and more appropriate for the times we’re in.”

Biden has insisted he wants Republican support — and that Congress needs to pass a big stimulus measure soon. “We have learned from past crises that the risk is not doing too much. The risk is not doing enough,” he said.

Another of the ten senators who signed Sunday’s letter, Jerry Moran of Kansas, told reporters last week that Democrats should break down Biden’s plans and try to pass the provisions that have bipartisan support, such as funding for vaccinations.

“They’d have to have every member (vote for a budget reconciliation bill), and just the process of a budget is so time consuming, so many votes. Lots of politics seem to arise in those circumstances,” Moran said.

It isn’t clear that Democrats are united yet. Asked if he was confident of getting all 50 to vote for a budget measure, Schumer would say only, “We’re going to craft our resolution, and we will all talk it through.”

Meanwhile, there is a push by House Democrats to use the stimulus bill to provide a path to citizenship for essential workers who are in the country illegally. Immigrants that have DACA status and refugees with Temporary Protected Status also should be included, according to a letter signed by some 100 House members.

Many of the immigrants “are protecting the nation’s food security, from working on farms and food processing facilities, to working in grocery stores and restaurants,” said the letter dated Saturday.