Incoming Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., laid out an ambitious agenda for the ag committee in a media call Thursday. She says she plans to continue her history of bipartisanship on the committee with the anticipated ranking member Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. Their initial 2021 priorities include nomination hearings for USDA nominees, child nutrition reauthorization, advancing her previously introduced climate bill as well as early work on the 2023 Farm Bill.
Stabenow is no stranger to serving as chair and will need to use her ability to bring members from both sides of the aisle to advance her agenda.
Although the issues surrounding the organization resolution for how the Senate will manage the 50-50 split are not finalized by Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Stabenow is hopeful the planned nomination hearing of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack can proceed on Feb. 2 as planned.
Stabenow says both her and Boozman felt a “great sense of urgency” for the ag department to have its leadership team in place to move forward on a number of fronts.
The chairwoman does not anticipate a contentious hearing for Vilsack and adds he has a “deep and wide knowledge of all aspects of agriculture.” She wants him to lay out his priorities and agenda going forward. She recognized Vilsack is anxious to hit the ground running and has put together a great team at the ag department of people who are extremely knowledgeable. She called Vilsack “one of our top advocates for rural communities.”
She says she agrees with Vilsack and his team on the need to focus on the climate crisis as urgent. She looks forward to working with the secretary on helping farmers feel comfortable in measuring their carbon and turning those into carbon credits. The Commodity Credit Corporation could also play a role as a carbon bank and USDA’s role in offering technical assistance to farmers.
Stabenow’s bipartisan bill introduced the Growing Climate Solutions Act in 2020. She sees the bill as a launching pad to address the current climate situation and help encourage farmers to do more than they already do in preserving the environment. She cited more than 50 organizations support her bill which advocated for a voluntary, producer-led way to sequester carbon and create a new revenue stream for farmers who do.
She would like to see her bill move as soon as possible and did not think it would have to be rolled into a larger climate package. “We can’t wait until the next farm bill in 2023,” says Stabenow. “I believe we can move that bill in a bipartisan basis to the floor and then look at what the next steps are. I feel a great sense of urgency to get started on things that need to get done.”
She is the only returning ag commitee leader on the House or Senate side as Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, retired and Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., was defeated in his re-election campaign.
Stabenow says she’s committed to listening to everybody on what works and doesn’t work as the committee tackles the farm bill set to expire in 2023. She says this will include how to encourage farmers to protect their land and water as well as moving away from recent unfair ad hoc assistance.
She says the last four years USDA operated outside the structure of the farm bill with trade mitigation payments in the Market Facilitation Program and recently through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, and she hopes for a return to the traditional structure focused on risk management.
She says the ad hoc payments and chaos in trade policy brought an unfair way by which payments were distributed in some areas. Instead, the farm bill needs to guide farm policy “back to something consistent based on risk management that allows our farmers to have confidence in the system and stability in the system.”
Stabenow adds the committee plans to pass a child nutrition bill that expands access to healthy meals during the school day and in the summer months, supports working families whose children need good nutrition at daycare, and strengthens critical nutrition assistance for moms and babies.
Normally the bill is reauthorized every five years, but Stabenow says it has been 10 years since the last reauthorization. “We’re both committed to focusing on lots of ways of supporting good nutrition,” she says of her ranking member Boozman.
Stabenow adds the ongoing pandemic has caused a hunger crisis and created major disruptions across the nation’s food supply chain. As many as 50 million Americans are not able to feed themselves and their families. She says the committee will prioritize improving access to food assistance to ensure that every family can put food on the table.
The committee will also proactively address disruptions across the supply chain that have created a ripple effect that has harmed farmers, food processors, and workers.