Three House Republicans are vying for their party’s top spot on the Agriculture Committee, with farmers and ranchers looking to Washington to ease their financial burdens from the coronavirus pandemic, natural disasters, and trade wars.
They’ll need to work with Democrats, who are favored to keep control of the House in the November elections. Collin Peterson (Minn.) currently holds the top Democratic spot on the panel.
Congress members historically set aside most political differences on agriculture policies, but Democrats and Republicans have recently dueled over Covid-19 relief for farmers and food aid for low-income families. Prominent farm groups point to bipartisanship as a major quality they’re hoping for.
“The nearly lost skill of listening will be critical” in future committee leaders, said Dale Moore, executive vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “There is a lot of talking past each other on the Hill right now.”
Republicans Glenn “GT” Thompson (Pa.), Austin Scott (Ga.), and Rick Crawford (Ark.) want to fill the vacancy the current ranking member, Mike Conaway (Texas), will create when he retires. All three competitors tout their ability to work across the aisle.
Thompson and Peterson acted as cosponsors on several of each other’s recent bills around issues including assistance for meat processors (H.R. 7490) and whole milk for students (H.R. 832). Thompson, Scott, and Crawford supported Peterson’s Commodity Futures Trading Commission reauthorization (H.R. 4895), and Peterson backed Scott’s wildlife conservation funding bill (H.R. 877).
The persistent Covid-19 pandemic raises the stakes going forward.
While the nation’s unemployment rate dropped below 10% in August for the first time since March, jobless Americans still crowd food banks and agriculture producers are struggling with insufficient farm labor. Direct government payments to farmers and ranchers this year are estimated at about $37 billion—a more than $14 billion jump compared with last year’s numbers, due to Covid-19 relief.
“If you look at where we are in the ag economy, we have to have an aggressive member” leading Republicans on the committee, Scott said in a telephone interview.
Also threatening agricultural producers are “decades-old issues,” such as climate change, overproduction, and corporate consolidation, said National Farmers Union President Rob Larew. “What we need now, and what we’ve needed for some time, is for the agriculture committees to prioritize structural reforms that give farmers a shot at earning fair prices through the market.”
‘Touches the Lives’
Crawford is running unopposed Nov. 3 to represent rural Arkansas. Both Thompson and Scott face Democratic challengers in their largely Republican districts. If re-elected, Thompson would kick-off his seventh congressional term, while Crawford and Scott would each enter their sixth.
Thompson has racked up the most Agriculture Committee leadership experience, holding positions that include the Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations Subcommittee chairmanship and the General Farm Commodities and Risk Management Subcommittee ranking member.
“There’s no other committee that probably touches the lives more frequently in a day’s time of the American family than the Agriculture Committee,” Thompson said in a telephone interview.
He pledged to restore a robust rural economy, help develop precision agriculture, identify climate solutions through voluntary conservation, and expand agricultural market opportunities with strong trade deals. Farmers started taking financial hits from President Donald Trump‘s trade war with China in 2018, and the industry is still recovering as a trade accord between the two countries inches through its first phase.
Thompson said farmers and ranchers need a stronger safety net to mitigate weather-related disasters, such as Southern agriculture producers’ losses during hurricanes and Iowa farmers’ crops flattened by an August derecho.
Scott, the current Commodity Exchanges, Energy, and Credit Subcommittee ranking member, said boosting the spending cap on the Commodity Credit Corp. is a priority. The New Deal-era government-owned and operated entity supports and protects farm income and prices. The spending limit of $30 billion set in the 1980s would be “almost twice” what it is today if adjusted for inflation, Scott said.
Demands by Republicans and the White House to replenish the Commodity Credit Corp. would be met under the House-passed stopgap spending bill (H.R. 8337). The Senate will consider the measure this week.
Scott seeks to address foreign influence in U.S. supply lines, listing China as a top offender. He also said he aims to work with retailers to promote American-grown products, possibly through state grants. Scott said he’ll push to find alternatives for farmers to gain revenue and, in turn, long-term sustainability for their operations.
Crawford is focusing on labor. “We have a lot of problems with the H-2A program,” which lets agricultural employers hire temporary foreign workers, he said in a telephone interview.
Crawford said he wants to encourage a domestic workforce as current farm operators are aging, a goal he shares with Scott.
“We need to be reaching out to young people and incentivize them to get into agriculture,” Crawford said.
GOP conference rules dictate that members can serve only three consecutive terms as a committee leader, regardless of whether that’s as a chairman or ranking member.
The choice for the GOP’s next Agriculture Committee leader would be left up to the House Republican Steering Committee, which interviews party members interested in heading other panels. Thompson holds a spot on the steering committee for the current Congress alongside prominent Republican figures, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.).
The final say on the new farm panel pick then goes to the party conference, which ratifies the steering committee’s recommendations.
To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org