Tom Vilsack finally gets his Senate vote to join the Biden administration for a second stint as agriculture secretary, and two other nominees important to farmers and ranchers get hearings this week.
Meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled House will vote on Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic stimulus plan that includes $3.6 billion in aid for the food supply chain, $5 billion in debt relief and other assistance to minority farmers, and an extension of a temporary increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
The Senate vote on Vilsack’s nomination is scheduled for Tuesday, more than a month after President Joe Biden took office.
The delay in the Vilsack vote, which was a result of the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump and last week’s recess, has slowed the administration’s ability to implement Biden’s priorities at USDA, although the department has announced some appointees for positions that don’t require Senate confirmation.
On Friday, the department announced that Gloria Montaño Greene, a Latina who runs a program of the League of Conservation Voters, will serve as deputy undersecretary for farm production and conservation and Zach Ducheneaux, an American Indian rancher, would serve as administrator of the Farm Service Agency.
Greene and Ducheneaux would have key roles in carrying out the minority farmer provisions in the stimulus bill. Vilsack’s nomination had come under fire from some progressives and advocates for minority farmers who say he did too little for them during his tenure as agriculture secretary from 2009 to 2017.
USDA's priorities under Vilsack will include establishing a "new era for equity and fairness" as well as helping end the COVID-19 pandemic and addressing climate change, the department's new chief of staff, Katharine Ferguson, said at last week's annual Agriculture Outlook Forum. "The United States is on the precipice of transforming our food system, and that transformation will be led by our farmers our ranchers, producers, and all of us living and working in rural America," she said.
On Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for a more controversial nominee, Rep. Debra Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat nominated to lead the Interior Department.
Haaland faces strong opposition from Republicans due to her stance on fossil fuels, and it’s not clear whether Democrats can stay united behind her. Democrats can’t afford to lose a single vote on their side in the 50-50 Senate, if Republicans vote against Haaland.
Last week, the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union joined a range of conservation groups in endorsing her nomination. The committee’s chairman, Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., hasn’t taken a position on her, and aides to committee member Jon Tester, D-Mont. said he is “interested in hearing more during her ENR hearing.”
Climate policy was a key interest of Haaland in the House, and it would be her top priority at Interior. Last year, Haaland and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced the Climate Stewardship Act, which would dramatically expand the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program at USDA and fund the planting of more than 15 billion trees on federal lands and around the country.
Biden’s nominee for U.S. Trade Representative, Katharine Tai, will get her confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.
A broad array of national and stat farm groups have signed letters endorsing Katherine Tai’s nomination to be U.S. trade representative.
Tai, who advised the House Ways and Means Committee during the last Congress, “is eminently qualified and deeply familiar with the mission” of USTR “in opening foreign markets and reducing barriers for U.S. food and agriculture workers and exporters for the benefit of consumers in the U.S. and across the globe,” said a letter signed by more than 100 groups.
Meanwhile, Biden’s pick to head the all-important Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, is in serious trouble after Manchin announced his opposition to her, citing her past political statements. OMB oversees the development of the president’s annual budget as well as regulatory and spending decisions made by departments and agencies.
Tanden, who has deleted numerous tweets critical of members of Congress, is president of the Center for American Progress, a leading liberal think tank.
Biden, so far, is sticking with Tanden. "Neera Tanden is an accomplished policy expert who would be an excellent budget director and we look forward to the committee votes next week and to continuing to work toward her confirmation through engagement with both parties,” Biden said.
Manchin also stands to figure into the future of the stimulus bill once it gets out of the House. Manchin has expressed opposition to an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Biden has conceded that the minimum wage increase may not survive the Senate, although he continues to push for the full package. Polls show Americans "want everything that’s in the plan. Not a joke. Everything that’s in the plan," Biden said.
The stimulus package also includes a total of $16.1 billion in provisions approved by the House Agriculture Committee and another $6.6 billion in child nutrition increases added by the House Education and Labor Committee.
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Ag Committee Republicans filed dissenting views that say the bill ignores critical needs and allege that it was premature to include a provision to pay off minority farmers' USDA loans without a hearing first. The committee approved a single GOP amendment, a proposal by Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, to compensate producers in his state who were hit by last summer's derecho.
Committee Chairman David Scott, D-Ga., defended the legislation, saying it "gets us one step closer to feeding the hungry, supplying COVID-19 vaccinations to our rural communities, seeking equitable solutions for Black farmers and other farmers of color, and supporting our food and ag sector supply chains."
Ahead of this week's floor vote, House GOP leaders are pushing their members to oppose the stimulus bill. “Republicans insist that we must safely reopen schools, reopen the economy, speed up vaccine distribution, and effectively spend the remaining $1 trillion from previous COVID packages," according to a memo go GOP members.
Here is a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere (all times EDT):
Monday, Feb. 22
National Association of State Departments of Agriculture winter policy conference, through Thursday
9:30 a.m. — Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the nomination of Merrick Garland to be attorney general, 216 Hart.
Tuesday, Feb. 23
9:30 a.m.. — Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the nomination of Rep. Debra Haaland, D-N.M., to be interior secretary, 366 Dirksen.
10 a.m. — Senate Judiciary Committee continues hearing on Garland nomination.
Wednesday, Feb. 24
10 a.m. — Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, “Building Back Better: Investing in Transportation while Addressing Climate Change, Improving Equity, and Fostering Economic Growth and Innovation,” G-50 Dirksen.
Thursday, Feb. 25
8:30 a.m. — USDA releases Weekly Export Sales report.
9 a.m. — USDA releases monthly Food Price Outlook.
10 a.m. — House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing with USDA inspector general.
10 a.m. — Senate Finance Committee hearing on the nomination of Katharine Tai to be U.S. trade representative, 215 Dirksen.
12:30 p.m. — House Agriculture Committee hearing, “Climate Change and the U.S. Agriculture and Forestry Sectors.”
2 p.m. — House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, “Strategies for Energy and Climate Innovation.a’
Friday, Feb. 26
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