New House Agriculture Chairman Casts an Eye on USDA, Farm Economy
The first repeat chairman of the House Agriculture Committee since the Eisenhower era, Collin Peterson of Minnesota says there’s plenty to do this year. It includes closer scrutiny of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who had a free hand for nearly two years in redrawing the organizational tree at USDA. “There is a new farm bill to implement, a growing economic storm in farm country, and the ongoing harm of a trade war to alleviate, not to mention the range of unforeseen issues that will test the mettle of the people we’re here to serve,” he says.
The guitar-playing, outspoken chairman circulated a meaty two-page list of topics for the panel to pursue. “Much of the work in 2019 will focus on oversight of implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill,” it said. Peterson has been skeptical for weeks about whether the modestly expanded safety net in the 2018 Farm Bill will be strong enough to handle the farm income slump that began in 2014. The National Farmers Union is prominent in calls for stronger supports. The committee may call Perdue to testify on the state of the farm economy, bring in U.S. trade officials to discuss trade negotiations, review the ethanol mandate, and push for more rural broadband service, according to Peterson’s memo.
An active examination of USDA would mesh with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plans for an assertive two years of oversight of the Trump administration. It also is a change in tone for the Agriculture Committee, which focused on the farm bill in 2017 and 2018 and raised few questions of the Trump team at USDA.
The 2018 Farm Bill overruled Perdue on one point. It reinstates the post of undersecretary for rural development. Perdue abolished the job to create room for an undersecretary for trade. Some Democrats want to block Perdue from relocating the Economic Research Service and the grant-awarding National Institute for Food and Agriculture outside of Washington.
One of the few legislative tasks for 2019 is reauthorization of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, put on the back burner while the farm bill was pending.
Peterson wants to “elevate” younger members to create a new generation of farm policy experts. But first, there may be schooling for new members of the committee. The Democratic takeover of the House ensures some churning. At least eight of the 46 members during 2017-2018 are leaving due to retirement, electoral defeat, election as governor, selection as a committee chairman, or disgrace. In 2015, 14 of 45 committee members were newcomers. In 2017, it was 12 of 46.
The Midwest will gain some power with Peterson as chair. He succeeds Mike Conaway of Texas, who becomes the senior Republican on the committee. Peterson, who chaired the committee from 2007 to 2011, is the first two-time Agriculture chairman since Democrat Harold Cooley of North Carolina, chairman from 1949 to 1953 and 1955 to 1967.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.