On Nov. 3, 2020 the country turned the page to a new president and changes to the make up of Congress. House Democrats maintained their majority, albeit by a smaller margin, but Democrats took charge of the Senate with the election of two Democrats in Georgia in January. Those elections moved the Senate into a 50-50 split between Republicans and Democrats. According to the constitution, in the event of a 50-50 split, the vice president casts the deciding vote. In this case, Vice President Harris’ vote gives the gavel to Democrats and complete control of all three branches of government.
The unusual split of the Senate has complicated organization of Senate committees. In early February the Senate Committee on Agriculture met for the first time since the election but in an unusual configuration as Sen. Boozman handed over the gavel to Sen. Stabenow; unofficial as the move was, it was still significant. The committee then moved into the confirmation of Secretary of Agriculture-designee Tom Vilsack. Sec. Vilsack should be familiar to farmers as he previously served as Secretary of Agriculture under former President Obama.
Committee members questioned the Secretary on a multitude of issues ranging from the Forest Service to climate change initiatives. Vilsack spoke to growing markets and creating new markets for agricultural products. Over the last year, government payments have replaced free markets. Vilsack elaborated on the need to move back to free markets to address food insecurity saying “The reality is we lack openness, fairness and competitiveness, and resiliency as the COVID-19 crisis has shown. I think we can strengthen the rules and laws designed to promote openness and fairness. I think we can support more marketing and processing opportunities and facilities throughout the country that will help create jobs.”
Agriculture’s role in addressing climate change was on full display as Democratic members of Congress asked Sec. Vilsack about implementing Pres. Biden’s climate change agenda. The Secretary committed to aggressively seeking farmer input on future climate policy. He outlined the department’s goals of increasing carbon sequestration and incentivizing farmers to help address climate change. “We must stop the farm debt cycle and create transparency in pricing throughout the supply chain; expand overseas markets and give U.S. agriculture a level playing field; and harness USDA’s expertise in science and conservation to work with farmers, ranchers and forest owners to create new sources of income tied to their good climate practices,” he said.
Vilsack also spoke about the need to increase the diversity of the country’s meat processing plants. While no specific proposals were introduced, the Secretary spoke generally about expanding small and medium size processing plants to help mitigate the pinch when others are closed. The Secretary told committee members that the country will face another pandemic and the supply chain must strengthen to meet future challenges.
The Senate Ag Committee met for three hours in questioning Secretary-designee Vilsack. While Vilsack was questioned about racial justice in agriculture and the need for diversity among farmers, the dairy industry remained unaddressed. The committee is scheduled to vote on his nomination in the coming days, even though the lack of a Senate organizational resolution has left the panel without official leadership. Vilsack is expected to win confirmation easily.