There are still some things we don’t know about the 2020 election.
When the Associated Press and other news agencies declared former Vice President Joe Biden to be the winner of the presidential election on Nov. 7, it cleared up some of the confusion. President Donald Trump had not conceded defeat.
No matter what happens, the election is potentially important for agricultural policy in several ways.
One is that Democrats retained control of the U.S. House of Representatives, but House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson, D-Minn., was defeated. That means there will be a new head of that committee.
And while Republicans appear to have retained narrow control of the Senate (that won’t be known for sure until a pair of special elections in Georgia in early January), the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Pat Roberts, R-Kan., retired, so there will be a new head of that committee as well.
Throw in the win for Biden, and that means a new secretary of agriculture, which makes it a trifecta of new faces leading the discussions regarding agricultural policy in Washington, D.C.
What’s more, there will be a divide in Washington. The likely Democratic president would need to work with not only Democrats in the House but with Republicans in the Senate to get things done. That might not be a bad thing, according to Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union.
“We at least have an opportunity for bipartisanship,” he says.
That hasn’t been the case for much of the highly polarizing Trump administration. Larew says Biden spent many years in Congress and has reached across the aisle before. He has stressed bipartisanship during the campaign, and agriculture is one area where bipartisanship might be possible.
That is despite the fact that farmers and rural residents overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump and Republican candidates this year.
It’s an area Democrats need to improve on, says Patty Judge, a Democrat who served as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture and who worked with Democratic candidates this year to try to get them to pay attention to rural issues. Those candidates did talk more about rural issues this year, Judge says, but it is clear that effort fell well short.
But Judge says the effort did succeed in educating Democratic presidential candidates during the primary process, and she hopes it leads Democrats to do a better job listening to rural residents and addressing their concerns in the future.
Still, there are always plenty of questions of who holds what leadership position after an election and there is no shortage of discussion about that this time around.
Peterson, for one, will be sorely missed, according to agricultural leaders from both sides of the aisle. A conservative Democrat who served over three decades in Congress, he was an outspoken advocate for his constituents in northwest Minnesota, where corn and ethanol and sugar beets were all part of the mix.
“He leaves some big shoes to fill,” says Dale Moore, executive vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
There are several possible successors to Peterson in the House. One is Rep. David Scott, D-Georgia. Scott sent a letter to fellow Democrats expressing his interest in the position and pointing out that he would be the first African-American to hold the chairmanship.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., is next in seniority after Scott. He represents the central valley in California. Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, is also a possibility.
In the Senate, if Democrats do take control after all special elections are finished, the chair would likely be Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. But if Republicans retain control, there are a couple of possibilities. The most likely one at the moment appears to be Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas. Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota may also be a possibility.
The picture is less clear when it comes to a possible secretary of agriculture for a Biden administration.
There is no clear front-runner for that position, which means there are plenty of possibilities. Fudge is a possible choice there. If chosen she would be the first African-American woman to hold the position.
Of course, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack served as ag secretary in the Obama administration. It would appear unlikely he would take the role again, although it is possible. He could be considered for other administration positions as well.
Moore and Larew say several other former USDA officials could be in the mix. Michael Scuse is a former ag commissioner for Delaware, which is Biden’s home state. He has also been a deputy secretary under Vilsack and was acting secretary for a brief time in 2017. Darcy Vetter was chief ag negotiator for the office of the trade representative under Obama. Krysta Harden was deputy secretary under Vilsack.
Peterson, now that he is leaving Congress, could also be a possibility, Moore says. Larew says former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp could also be in the mix.
Judge says it could be someone completely outside the box, like Rep. Ro Khana, of California. He has worked with Midwestern leaders on internet access and economic development and technology issues.
If Biden wants to appoint a Republican to his cabinet, he might even look at someone like Bill Northey, who served as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture before becoming USDA under secretary in the Trump administration.
What all of this means for farm policy in the next several years is uncertain. Biden has talked about renewable energy on the campaign trail, and he has expressed his support for ethanol. Larew says a COVID-19 aid package might be something the two parties could work together on in the short term and infrastructure might be something they could also agree on. Items such as rural internet would appear to be bipartisan.
Moore says Biden is unlikely to just end the trade war with China with no agreement, but he will likely tone down the rhetoric and try to find some sort of agreement.
“Everybody (in both parties) wants to see the U.S. make progress with China,” Moore says.
No matter who won the election, there were always going to be questions about continuing the large trade and COVID payments that have gone to farmers the past three years, Larew says.
One thing Moore says he will be watching is what a new administration’s approach to regulatory affairs will be. Will Biden push more mandates or will he pursue a voluntary approach, for example.
He says Biden will likely focus more on conservation and the environment than President Trump. Climate issues will also move higher on the agenda.