Midterms are likely to scorch Biden climate agenda for agriculture

Republican lawmakers, who have chafed and balked at President Biden’s climate initiatives for months, would likely use their expanded strength from the midterm elections to hobble the administration’s climate agenda for agriculture. Two members of the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture already have hinted at a crackdown on USDA’s spending powers.

The GOP is expected to win control of the House and perhaps the Senate as well in Tuesday’s elections. Republicans, who gave President Trump a free hand during his tenure, say they will monitor closely USDA programs if given a majority.

“If the Senate were to flip, as chair you can expect that he [Sen. John Boozman] will pursue rigorous oversight of USDA’s actions that prioritize the president’s political agenda over the needs of our ag community,” said a Boozman spokesman. The Arkansas Republican, the senior Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has questioned whether the USDA has the authority to launch climate programs on its own. “In his view, the needs of our farmers, ranchers and foresters must come first at USDA.”

Pennsylvania Rep. Glenn Thompson, Boozman’s counterpart on the House Agriculture Committee, said in late September that climate mitigation does not deserve priority over other soil and water conservation goals, notwithstanding the $20 billion earmarked for it. “I don’t feel bound by the amount of funding or the specific program allocation passed in the partisan [climate, healthcare and tax] bill,” said Thompson. Early this year, he said USDA acted as “a lone wolf” with its proposal to develop climate-smart commodities, and at a farm show in August he said he wanted to “make sure the [2023] farm bill doesn’t become the climate bill.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities in February as a $1 billion array of pilot projects designed to mitigate global warming and generate revenue for producers. Seven weeks ago, Vilsack said the administration would put $3.5 billion into the pilot projects, three times more than originally planned.

Biden has said he wants U.S. agriculture to be the first in the world to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and aims to cut overall U.S. emissions in half by 2030.

“In no way can $3.5 billion be considered a ‘pilot program,’ and there must be direct congressional involvement before a program of this magnitude is implemented,” wrote 10 House Republicans in an Oct. 28 letter to Vilsack. “USDA’s unilateral move has raised questions about current and future congressional oversight of CCC funding.”

The Commodity Credit Corp (CCC), with $30 billion in spending power, is the source of money for the climate-smart projects. Maryland Rep. Andy Harris, the GOP leader on the Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, and Rep. David Valadao, a California Republican, were among the lawmakers who signed the letter.

Congress restricted USDA’s powers to tap the CCC, known as “USDA’s bank,” during President Obama’s second term, from 2012-17. Republicans said the USDA unfairly tried to help Senate Agriculture chairwoman Blanche Lincoln win re-election in 2010 by launching a cotton support program. The limitations were removed while Trump was in office, which gave him the freedom to spend $23 billion on trade-war payments to farmers in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Despite rancor over the $20 billion allotted for stewardship programs, a Republican majority would be ill-advised to eliminate the funding, said farm policy consultant Ferd Hoefner. “This is likely to be the only new funding for the farm bill in the next farm bill cycle,” said Hoefner, who believes practicality will prevail.

“The top thing on the long list of things agriculture can do to help solve the climate crisis is to address nutrient pollution, which just happens to be the most important thing agriculture can do to solve water quality problems, just to give an example of the larger point,” said Hoefner. “We need integrated solutions to integrated problems and thankfully, the best conservation practices tend to positively address multiple resource concerns.” He declined to speculate on the future of the climate-smart partnerships.

Scott Faber, of the Environmental Working Group, said there was broad support for incentives to farmers and ranchers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The unresolved question, in his view, is how much emphasis to put on climate mitigation in USDA’s conservation program. “So regardless about what happens on election day, EWG is optimistic that the next farm bill will transform conservation programs to help us avoid a climate catastrophe and a political catastrophe for farmers.”

If Republicans control the House and Senate, they might refuse additional funding for climate programs at USDA, although the $20 billion would remain available, said IFPRI senior fellow Joe Glauber. With continued polarization of Congress and the 2024 presidential election on the horizon, an extension of the 2018 farm policy law, rather than enactment of a new farm bill in 2023, “looks [to be] the most likely outcome,” said Glauber. “And expect some nasty hearings on climate programs.”