The Georgia Democrat and Pennsylvania Republican poised to take the reins of the House Agriculture Committee next year have shared priorities, including climate policy, but different timelines and approaches.
Reps. David Scott, D-Ga., and Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., were both selected by their respective caucuses as their party’s House Ag leaders for the next two years. Scott — by virtue of a slim Democratic majority — will chair the committee, and Thompson will serve as the panel’s top Republican. Both men indicate they want committee members to continue to work in a bipartisan way across regional differences.
“As I told Speaker Pelosi … I have served on the committee when we had Republican chairmen and we had Democratic chairmen, and I’ve achieved things on that committee underneath both,” Scott said in an interview with Agri-Pulse. “Agriculture has been and will be a bipartisan committee because we have a history of that; I have a history of that.”
“Our numbers will be as close as ever,” Thompson said in a separate conversation with Agri-Pulse. “Which I think is going to help us continue to work in the bipartisan way we do in agriculture.”
The official committee rosters and party splits will be determined at a later date, but the committee’s Democratic majority could be as slim as two or three votes. For Scott, the close divide shouldn't slow down an ambitious agenda that includes action on climate change, disaster readiness, and — of course — preparation for the next farm bill.
Reflecting a top priority of President-elect Joe Biden, Scott said that climate change “has got to be our top priority in this committee.” He wants to bring in scientists and other expert witnesses to discuss the subject and help producers navigate the subject, but also to lower the temperature on what can often be a very heated debate.
“Carbon sequestration, no-till farming, all of these things we’ve got to be able to have” as part of the discussion, Scott said. “We’re going to have to bring that climate change issue away from all of this politicization … it is our farmers that are suffering.”
Thompson also brought up climate change as a top priority of his, but one that he’ll approach from the perspective of getting agricultural practices the recognition he feels they’re due. He said he wants to avoid overregulation that can be "punishing" to farms. He believes that grazing, responsible forest management, and other carbon-sequestering technologies that can come from agriculture need to be considered as part of the solution to the issue.
“The reality is those things work,” he said. “They’re not political solutions, they’re practical solutions.”
Scott also listed broadband deployment among his top priorities for the committee, as well as a desire to work with the Appropriations Committee to enact legislation that creates a response protocol and funding that can be used for future disasters. That idea, floated earlier this year by current House Ag Chair Collin Peterson, D-Minn., would allow USDA to fund disaster response for producers without an act of Congress and could potentially be funded through the department’s Commodity Credit Corp. Peterson, who lost his reelection effort in November, had said such a protocol would have been among his top priorities in Congress.
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The two new leaders both had kind remarks about the other — Scott called Thompson “very thoughtful and very thorough,” Thompson said Scott is “a gentleman and a statesman” — and both boast lengthy House Ag resumes. Scott also quipped about his “Pennsylvania roots” — he went to elementary school in Scranton — a surefire way, he said, to build a connection with Thompson.
Both chaired or served as ranking member to a handful of panel subcommittees, and both are veterans of several farm bills, experience that will serve them well as they begin to deliberate how to approach a lingering 2023 deadline when the current legislation will expire.
For Scott, he said he’d like to “get my sea legs under me.” He hearkened back to his days in the Georgia state Senate when he gained the reputation as a “members' chairman” for his style of soliciting member feedback before taking concrete action on a bill.
“I want to make sure that I can articulate the ambitions and interest of the members of the committee,” he said.
But Thompson says time is of the essence.
“We need to make up for some lost time,” he said, pointing to action that could have happened had the chamber been doing its regular work in Washington for much of 2020 rather than dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. “We need good oversight. It’s time to start hearing from USDA directly; hearing from farmers and ranchers, and folks within rural communities on what’s working and what’s not working” with the 2018 farm bill.
One thing Scott already knows about the next farm bill is he wants to expand an $80 million scholarship program for historically Black colleges and universities he championed in the 2018 legislation. Those scholarships, given to agricultural students at 1890s land grant colleges, should be expanded to Hispanic and Native American institutions, he said.
The two new leaders are part of a group of House and Senate Agriculture Committee heads with three of four new faces (Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., will the only holdover from the last farm bill; Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., is set to be the Senate panel’s top Republican). But both Scott and Thompson expect a solid working relationship with their Senate counterparts. They’ve both worked with Stabenow on previous farm bills, and Boozman is a former House colleague.
Thompson said he hopes rural and urban America will see results.
“When we get the policy right on agriculture and for rural America, what that means is that every American family — including those in very large cities — won’t wake up in the cold, dark, and hungry," Thompson said.
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