Republicans plan to use their razor-thin House majority and the committee control it gives them to investigate the Biden administration’s regulation of pesticides, climate policy and other issues important to agriculture.

Pennsylvania Republican Glenn “GT” Thompson, who is in line to chair the House Agriculture Committee in the next Congress, tells Agri-Pulse he plans to use the panel’s authority over the Environmental Protection Agency’s pesticide registration fees to bring in EPA Administrator Michael Regan for questioning about restrictions on insecticides and weedkillers.

The Pesticide Registration Improvement Act, which allows EPA to collect fees to fund its oversight of the products, is due to be reauthorized before the end of FY 2023 in September.

“What we've seen with the Biden administration is really politicizing critical crop protection tools for food and fiber producers,” Thompson said.

Since Democrats will retain control of the Senate and President Joe Biden has his veto pen, there is little the House GOP can do to reverse his policies, but Republicans have made clear they do plan to draw attention to Biden's actions through hearings and investigations.

A Nov. 4 letter to Regan signed by Thompson and two other senior House Republicans, including Kentucky Rep. James Comer, the ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, questioned EPA’s revocation of food tolerances for chlorpyrifos. The letter cited Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack’s support for allowing the continued use of the insecticide on some crops.

EPA’s ban on the use of chlorpyrifos for food crops resulted from a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The agency also has taken various actions related to glyphosate, dicamba, atrazine, sulfoxaflor, organophosphates, neonicotinoids and other chemicals.

Regan would also be likely questioned by the Ag Committee and other panels about the administration’s rewrite of the Trump-era Waters of the United States rule, which determines what streams and other features are subject to federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.

Thompson also has laid the groundwork for conducting oversight of the Agriculture Department’s Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities, a $3.5 billion initiative funded out of USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp. account to identify the best way to develop markets for lower-carbon agricultural products.

A Sept. 23 letter signed by all of the Ag Committee’s current GOP members cited Vilsack’s use of the CCC account for the projects without explicit congressional approval as an example of the administration’s overreach.

Vilsack's Republican predecessor, Sonny Perdue, used the CCC to compensate producers for the impact of retaliatory tariffs that resulted from President Donald Trump's trade war with China. Congress, then controlled by Republicans, opened the door to Perdue's action in 2018 by removing CCC restrictions that GOP lawmakers imposed when Vilsack was ag secretary during the Obama administration.  

The climate projects are likely to have a broad base of political support since they reach every state and involve a wide array of farm and conservation groups as well as agribusiness, food and apparel companies. But Thompson said the projects are part of a pattern of “reckless spending” that has taken place while the administration and Congress have been under Democratic control.

“While I’m sure they are worthy projects, the Biden administration is unilaterally spending billions of dollars without congressional input,” Thompson said.

USDA brought “a lot of stakeholders to the table, but they have not brought our congressional, constitutionally required, stakeholders to the table, and that is the legislative branch,” Thompson said.

The Sept. 23 letter demanded USDA turn over documentation related to the CCC usage, including an “analysis of other occasions where the specific authority was also used and how such occasion is similar to or distinguishable from this program.”

Meanwhile, the House Financial Services Committee has the Securities and Exchange Commission in its targets, including a proposed rule that would require publicly traded corporations to track and disclose the greenhouse gas emissions in their supply chains.

“The Biden administration is pushing its agenda through financial regulators because they don’t have the votes to pass it in Congress,” the committee’s top GOP member, North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry, told Agri-Pulse.  

“Specifically, SEC Chair (Gary) Gensler is using the rulemaking process to implement social and climate policies through mandated disclosures — which is contradictory to established law that already requires companies to disclose information if it is material to investors,” McHenry said.

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During a Senate hearing in September, Gensler downplayed the potential impact on farms of the proposed rule’s reporting requirements, although he didn’t deny it would apply to companies that have pledged to reduce supply chain emissions. Many food and apparel companies have already announced reduction targets or are developing such pledges. Supermarket giant Kroger Co., for example, expects to announce its targets next year.  

Farm groups have been highly critical of the proposal, with some even calling on the SEC to withdraw the entire rule, or at least the requirement for reporting emissions in their supply chains.

Tom_Vilsack_Whitten_Patio.jpgAg Secretary Tom Vilsack

Speaking to last week's gathering of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting, Vilsack said his department would comply with oversight requests but would push back against unreasonable requests or fishing expeditions.

“The problem with that is that it takes a tremendous amount of staff time to respond to those kinds of inquiries, staff time that would otherwise be utilized for providing services that people all care about,” Vilsack said.

“So, my hope is that when there is oversight that it is tailored, (and) it is focused on particular issues that are of interest and concern to members of Congress.”

Thompson insisted his “goal is to restore a great working relationship with the secretary and USDA leadership,” similar to the relationship he said he had with Vilsack during the Obama administration.

One of Thompson’s challenges is that he also faces a time crunch: The committee also needs to write a new farm bill and pass an extension of the pesticide registration law.

Thompson has indicated that he wants to see the farm bill move in the House before the August recess, and he is promising an aggressive schedule of hearings and listening sessions before the measure is drafted. Authority for some programs in the 2018 farm bill expire as soon as Sept. 30.

“We have a congressional, constitutional authority” to pass a new farm bill, he said. “At the same time, we have a congressional responsibility to provide oversight.”

Votes continue to be counted from the Nov. 8 congressional elections, but as of Tuesday Republicans had won 219 House seats, one more than they need to control the chamber, according to The Associated Press. Their majority could grow to 222 if they win the seats in which they were leading as of Tuesday.

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