New faces will head key departments as the Biden administration takes office Jan. 20, and their actions on regulations affecting agriculture and rural America may differ sharply from the last four years.

In addition to the selection of Tom Vilsack, a well-known official picked for another term to lead the Department of Agriculture, and Michael Regan, a North Carolina official being embraced by the ag industry, President-elect Joe Biden has named his planned nominees for Office of Management and Budget and the departments of Interior, Transportation, Energy, Labor, and others. These departments will have major impacts on agricultural policies like the Renewable Fuel Standard, livestock grazing on public lands, and boosting access to high-speed internet in rural America.

All of these planned nominees will need to be confirmed by the Senate.

Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden

Tanden, who currently serves as President and CEO of the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, said one her first priorities as director would be securing rural broadband across the United States. She also said tackling the climate crisis, securing affordable health care, and advancing racial equality are among other top priorities, according to Biden’s transition website.

OMB has a far-reaching impact on government spending and regulation. The agency develops the president's annual budget, reviews regulations developed by departments and agencies, and also prepares the administration's position statements on bills being debated in Congress. 

Under Tanden's leadership, CAP released a series of reports and blog posts on farm, food and rural development policy. A report called "A Fair Deal for Farmers" detailed the consolidation that has taken place in agribusiness and called for government action to curb market concentration. "If this market power remains unchecked, America may lose the last of its family farms, dealing a deadly blow to agriculture-dependent rural communities," the report said. 

Tanden previously worked for the Obama administration, where she helped draft the Affordable Care Act. She has also served as then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s legislative director and began her career in former President Bill Clinton’s administration as an associate director for domestic policy, according to her bio.

If confirmed, Tanden, who says she was raised on food stamps and Section 8 housing as a child, would be the first woman of color and South Asian American to lead OMB.

U.S. Trade Representative, Katharine Tai

Tai is a “trade professional” steeped in the ways of international commerce and politics, and that’s going to be very important for America’s farmers, who depend on access to foreign markets across the globe, says American Farm Bureau Federation Senior Director David Salmonsen,

Tai, who was the chief counsel on China trade enforcement at USTR before taking the job as the top trade lawyer for the House Ways and Means Committee, will face an onslaught of challenges coming from Geneva, Hanoi, Mexico City, Beijing, and elsewhere after four years of trade tumult during the Trump administration.

The U.S. remains in a trade war with China, negotiations with the UK are on hold, and the U.S. and European Union are engaged in heated battles over aircraft manufacturing subsidies, aluminum and steel tariffs and digital taxes. In addition, the USTR is investigating Vietnam for currency manipulation and accusing Canada of failing to uphold dairy quota promises. That is just some of the unfinished business Tai will face as the top U.S. trade ambassador.

In remarks Tuesday to the National Foreign Trade Council Foundation, Tai warned that the U.S. faces “stiffening competition from a growing and ambitious China” and must ensure that the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement is working properly. Addressing those challenges will require cooperation between the political parties and with “stakeholders across the entire spectrum of the U.S. economy and polity," she said. 

“On day one of President-elect Biden’s administration, the U.S. trade situation will be complex at best,” said International Dairy Foods Association President and CEO Michael Dykes. “The future success and viability of the U.S. dairy industry relies on the health of global market opportunities, and therefore IDFA offers its partnership to Ms. Tai and the staff at USTR to position U.S. dairy for success.”

Katherine Tai

USTR-designate Katherine Tai

The first and most pressing issue for the ag sector that Tai will be faced with is China.

“That’s something farmers will all be looking to the administration for,” Salmonsen told Agri-Pulse. “I’m sure there will be plenty of discussion about where they go from here. Do they go to phase two? Do they try to continue a purchases approach? What do they do with the tariffs? Those are a lot of the issues that are important to agriculture that the USTR will have a big role in.”

The Biden administration is also expected to be eager to focus on the World Trade Organization. Biden has often stressed the need reengage the world on a multilateral stage, and the WTO’s role as an international arbiter has been hobbled by the Trump administration refusal to allow the institution to approve appellate court judges.

Interior Department, Deb Haaland

Progressive New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, who currently serves as vice chairwoman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in an interview with the Guardian in December that she would “move climate change priorities, tribal consultation and a green economic recovery forward.”

The Interior Department includes the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees 245 million acres of land; the Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces the Endangered Species Act and manages wildlife refuges; and the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees water projects across the West. 

BLM proposed a rule in January to revise grazing regulations to provide additional flexibility for land and resource management. That includes issuing “nonrenewable grazing permits to address changing landscapes in response to fire and invasive vegetation,” according to BLM.

New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau CEO Chad Smith said his group will be watching how Haaland handles those updates.

“This administration that we’re currently in opened up BLM grazing regulations for the first time in many years. That was a much-needed due process. It’s going to be a matter of what happens now that we have the transition,” Smith told Agri-Pulse.

In 2020, Haaland and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced the Climate Stewardship Act, which is designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through carbon sequestration on agricultural lands and reforestation. The bill would sharply expand the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program at USDA and pay for planting over 15 billion trees on federal lands and across the nation.

“Climate change is an immediate threat our communities face that calls for bold solutions. However, deforestation and some current agricultural practices are making global warming worse," Haaland said. 

Before coming to Congress, Haaland ran her own small business making salsa. She also became the first chairwoman elected to the Laguna Development Corp. board of directors, which has oversight over the second largest tribal gaming enterprise in New Mexico. 

Transportation Department, Pete Buttigieg

The former South Bend, Ind., mayor’s transportation and climate goals closely align with Biden's. During his own campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Buttigieg touted his plan to fix and update at least half of America’s roads and bridges in the next decade with some $50 billion in state grants being used to repair bridges.

Buttigieg proposed $169 billion for the Highway Trust Fund during the campaign that would be funded through a fee for vehicle miles traveled instead of increasing the federal gas tax, which hasn't been raised since 1993. Gasoline tax revenue collections have slumped in recent years as motor vehicles have become more efficient. 

Whatever the Biden administration might do, Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said a new funding mechanism to improve roads and bridges is needed. “The fuel tax as it currently exists will increasingly be less able to meet the needs of maintaining and improving our inventory of roads and bridges,” Steenhoek told Agri-Pulse.

Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg

Also under Buttigieg’s jurisdiction will be hours of service for livestock haulers. At this time, livestock haulers do not have to have an electronic logging device, and an exemption remains in place until further notice, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration

Buttigieg also proposed increasing electric vehicle charging stations with $6 billion in grants and loans for states and cities. This could be problematic for the renewable fuels industry, but Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Geoff Cooper said Buttigieg understands how ethanol and biodiesel can play an important role in the transportation sector by reducing carbon emissions.

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Energy Department, Jennifer Granholm

Granholm, who served as Michigan's governor from 2003-2011, is expected to focus on improving energy efficiency.

In 2008, she signed an energy package into law requiring more electricity to be used from renewable energy sources, according to a local news report. She supports the increased use of electric vehicles, but biofuel industry leaders say she’s been a “strong supporter of ethanol” over the years.

“She exhibited a great understanding of the benefits of renewable fuels and the dangers of dependence on foreign oil at that time,” RFA's Cooper told Agri-Pulse, referring to her time as governor. Coming from Michigan, Cooper said she understands the needs of the auto industry and supports flex-fuel vehicles that can run on blends of up to 85% ethanol. 

Granholm’s career in public service started as a judicial clerk for the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1990, she became a federal prosecutor and was elected the state’s first female attorney general in 1998.

Department of Labor, Marty Walsh

One of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s first issues as Labor Secretary could be dealing with wage rates in H-2A visa program. He has the backing of the AFL-CIO, one of the nation’s top labor unions. But agricultural employers say it will be important for Walsh to handle wage rates in the H-2A visa program quickly. In addition to administering the H-2A program, the department also enforces labor standards. 

In November, the Trump administration attempted to lower wage increases for the H-2A program through a new rule halting the use of USDA’s annual Farm Labor Survey. The survey is used to calculate wage rates for farmworkers. However, a federal judge in California blocked implementation of the rule in December.

Michael Marsh, President and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, wouldn't speculate on whether Walsh would withdraw the new rule or not, but said he would be pushing him on the importance of ag labor.

Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, an advocacy group, wants Walsh to "reverse the many harmful policies adopted by the Trump Administration and resolve the pending lawsuits against the Department of Labor. We are also hopeful that the DOL under his leadership will improve enforcement of farmworkers’ rights and adopt new policies and programs that help the nation’s farmworkers improve their wages, working conditions and occupational safety."

Walsh signed a sanctuary-city law barring the Boston police from cooperating or sharing information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. From 2011-2013, he headed a local union, the Boston Building and Construction Trades Council.

Bill Tomson contributed to this report. 

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