House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has at times been a critical ally for farm groups and rural Democrats. They hope they can count on her again, this time to get the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement approved, and to keep her caucus from being pulled too far to the left.

Pelosi has a mixed record when it comes to agriculture: She helped pass the 2007 energy bill that further boosted biofuel usage and helped ensure the 2008 farm bill passed over a presidential veto, but she also oversaw passage of the 2009 cap-and-trade bill that split the agriculture community and her own caucus and likely contributed to the her party’s loss of its House majority in 2010. 

Still, Pelosi’s allies on and off the Hill believe that over the next two years, she will be an important friend and a moderating influence within a House Democratic majority that has a vocal new class of progressive members restless to see their priorities on climate change and other issues enacted. 

Pelosi has told rural and more moderate members of the Democratic caucus “to make sure you raise your voice,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif. “She’s very practical. Notwithstanding times when we’ve disagreed she’s always practical and very focused on what it takes to keep folks together.”

Her allies saw evidence of Pelosi’s moderating influence when she pushed back on the Green New Deal resolution that calls for transforming the U.S. economy to zero out U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In an interview the same day the resolution was released, Pelosi called the Green New Deal a “green dream.” 

“It is pretty telling that she has not endorsed the Green New Deal,” said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, which split from other farm groups to support the cap-and-trade bill. “She’s been around for a long time and I think has a pretty big pulse on what is possible with the Democratic caucus and what isn’t.”

The key to influencing Pelosi will be House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, her allies say. Other Democratic members of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate House Democrats, that lost about half its membership in the 2010 midterms, also will be important since many already are being targeted by Republicans in 2020. 

“I think the biggest advantage we have to having Pelosi as speaker is that we have Collin as chairman of the Agriculture Committee, because she very much listens to him,” said Johnson, a former state agriculture commissioner in North Dakota who became president of NFU in 2009.

Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson

Costa, a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee and longtime member of the Blue Dogs, said “Pelosi listens very carefully to Chairman Peterson when it comes to agricultural policy. I know I have her ear as well. We’re going to have disagreements from time to time, I’m sure.”

Costa clashed with Pelosi over the cap-and-trade bill, a major priority of then-President Obama’s that was intended to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by putting limits on carbon emissions and setting up a system for polluters to obtain offsets that could be used to comply with the caps. 

Agriculture would have been exempt from the carbon caps, and farmers would have been eligible to get paid for generating carbon offsets from such practices as reduced tillage or planting trees. But the bill stirred considerable alarm among the American Farm Bureau Federation and other farm groups, because of the potential impact on energy costs, and among rural electric cooperatives, many of which are heavily dependent on coal-generated power. 

Peterson ultimately supported the bill after negotiating an amendment that would have expanded the types of practices eligible for carbon credits and put USDA rather the EPA in charge of regulating the agricultural offsets. 

Peterson “seemed to be the key to whether there a deal was going to happen in the House,” said Johnson. “We worked very closely with him in putting together the architecture of how the agricultural offsets were going to be designed.”

With Peterson’s amendment in place, the bill passed narrowly, 219-212, but 44 Democrats voted against it, including Costa and other rural Democrats, and the legislation ultimately died in the Senate. 

Costa said Pelosi made clear that she wasn’t happy with his opposition to the bill. “One of the talents the speaker has displayed throughout her career is that she’s very tenacious, she’s very focused,” Costa said. 

Costa still thinks forcing the cap-and-trade vote was a mistake. “In terms of the politics, I didn’t think it was going anywhere in the Senate. On the merits it was flawed and was going to be very difficult to implement. Since it wasn’t going to pass the Senate why were we going to go through this exercise?”

Stung by the bill’s defeat, Peterson has made clear in interviews that he has no interest in participating in another climate bill. “It’s not smart to do anything that the Senate isn’t willing to take up. That should take care of it,” he said. 

Earlier, Pelosi and her staff were pivotal in working with environmentalists, biofuel advocates and the George W. Bush administration to enact the 2007 energy law, which expanded the Renewable Fuel Standard. The initial RFS, enacted in 2005 when Republicans controlled Congress, required the use of 4 billion gallons of biofuels by 2006 and 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. 

The 2007 law set more ambitious targets, requiring the use of 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol by 2015, while also instituting new requirements for advanced biofuels to reduce carbon emissions in comparison to conventional fossil fuels. 

The life-cycle analysis included the law for meeting the carbon reduction requirements that helped address environmentalists’ concerns about increasing the corn ethanol targets, said Jon Doggett, a former top lobbyist for the National Corn Growers Association who is now the group’s CEO. 

The political “ground had shifted appreciably” between 2005, when the first RFS was enacted, and 2007, when Democrats were in control of the House, said Doggett. In meetings with NCGA, Pelosi’s staff pressed the group on concerns that expanding the RFS for corn ethanol would lead to breaking up new lands, increasing carbon emissions. Adding the life-cycle analysis addressed that fear, and Pelosi wound up taking pride in the revised RFS, said Doggett.

“I ran into her a couple of years ago. We had a brief chat and she wanted to know how, quote, ‘my RFS’ is doing for the corn growers,” Doggett said. 

Bob Dinneen, who was president of the Renewable Fuels Association in 2007, said Pelosi “really had a pivotal role in making sure that the RFS was the progressive, market-driven” policy that it is. “Pelosi, then and now, really looks at that with a fair degree of pride, as she should,” said Dinneen. 

Said Peterson, “Without her, we wouldn’t have the RFS.”

Collin Peterson

House Ag Chair Collin Peterson, D-Minn.

Peterson said he has maintained a close relationship with Pelosi — “She trusts me on ag stuff” but he has steadfastly rebutted critics who say he was acting under pressure from Pelosi when he led the fight against the House Republican farm bill last spring. Not a single Democrat voted for the GOP bill in committee or on the House floor. 

"Now, if I hadn’t done what I did, she would have weighed in on it. She didn’t have to, because I did it on my own,” Peterson said. 

In December, as the House was preparing to vote on the final farm bill, which omitted the tougher work requirements and eligibility rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that Peterson and other Democrats opposed, Pelosi made clear to her caucus that they ought to support the legislation. 

As Peterson pitched the bill to his colleagues in a private caucus meeting before the vote, Pelosi “was nodding and telling them what a great job I did. … I was a hero. I got a standing ovation.” 

The House passed the bill, 369-47. Only three Democrats voted against it. 

Pelosi's support will be critical to achieving what is the No. 1 priority for many farm groups in this Congress — implementing revisions to the North American Free Trade Agreement that President Donald Trump renamed the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement. 

"Leaving aside your positions on social issues and other things, when you look strictly at what Speaker Pelosi has done for agriculture it has been a net positive in results," said Doggett. "We’re going to start with USMCA as the beginning of this chapter of the relationship."

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