Every four years we go through a seemingly never-ending presidential campaign. With COVID ravaging the country, this was no doubt the strangest presidential campaign in a long time. Obviously, the headline is that Donald Trump lost reelection and Joe Biden will become the 46th president of the United States with Kamala Harris becoming the first woman, first Asian American, and first African American vice president. Democrats have retained control over the House of Representatives, albeit with a smaller majority, and have secured control of the Senate following a sweep of the Georgia Senate runoffs.
What do these changes mean for Washington in 2021? We can expect immigration policy to become less confrontational; we can also expect a less confrontational approach with our allies around the world, but I suspect we will continue to confront China on trade. The Biden Administration will try to use the spending power of the government to “buy American” more aggressively than the Trump Administration did. It is likely the billions of dollars in government subsidies provided to farmers to pay for damage caused by trade wars with China and COVID will taper off or cease.
Many of the environmental policies challenged by the Trump Administration are already in federal court and I suspect the Biden Administration will suspend litigation on many of the cases (as the Trump Administration did when they came in) and, after an evaluation, some of those policies will be overturned.
During the last four years, the Trump Administration has been very aggressive in using executive powers—redirecting money with no Congressional authorization to build the wall, or many of the policy changes in immigration as examples—and since the Supreme Court has approved many of those Trump moves, we can expect that the Biden Administration will also use many of these newly found powers to pursue policy objectives it favors.
At USDA, the new Secretary of Agriculture is…the old Secretary of Agriculture. President-elect Biden has chosen Tom Vilsack to lead the department. Vilsack was the former Governor of Iowa, who held the same position during all eight years under President Obama. President Biden will put a significant emphasis on climate change at USDA. The Biden team has a detailed climate change plan for USDA. Many of the elements are internal—changes in focus of USDA research programs or conservation programs to emphasize climate change—but the significant new idea that the plan champions is a carbon bank of several billion dollars. This carbon bank would be funded through the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), which is a pot of money Congress has given USDA to use in emergencies. President Trump used the CCC to fund payments to offset Chinese trade retaliation. Biden wants to use this money to pay farmers to sequester carbon. Vilsack’s main objective will be to create ways for farmers to combat climate change. The objective is to help farmers mitigate changing climate conditions so we can keep producing food but also to create incentives for adopting farming practices that improve and make the planet more sustainable. Western Growers will be working to stay out front of this new policy reality.
For the House of Representatives, a battle to control the agenda is already brewing between moderate Democrats and the left wing over what the election means. Was the election a repudiation of the left? Or were progressive issues key to voter turnout in large cities which helped put Biden over the top? Given Biden’s own more moderate brand of policymaking, I believe the Democratic Party in the House will trend to the more moderate side. Frankly, the Democrats will need to move to the middle because their majority is much slimmer than it was before, which means it is likely they will need support from moderate Republicans to get anything done.
In the Senate, the story is the same: moderates will be the key to getting any policies enacted. Control of the chamber will be held by Democrats even though each party has 50 senators because the vice president can break any ties. During the campaign, Biden said he wanted to launch a large economic stimulus package to help revive the economy and he wanted that package to include massive “buy America” provisions, especially as they relate to rebuilding infrastructure. If the economy is stagnant in 2021 that idea would be very attractive and could very well gain bipartisan traction…and WG will attempt to secure money for “water infrastructure” in any infrastructure bill.
With such an even split, passing bills will be very tricky, but since Biden’s political career was formed in the Senate, I would not be surprised to see his administration working toward compromise on issues big and small—sometimes without success but with more wins than many naysayers think possible.
A Democratic-controlled House last year passed agricultural immigration reform that would have helped create a new guest worker system while also providing a pathway for earned citizenship for farmworkers who are already here. The same majority in the House will exist in 2021 for that type of package and President Biden has already indicated he will push for immigration reform. The variable will be the Senate. With a Senate split down the middle, I do not like the prospects for large comprehensive immigration reform that tackles all issues at once, as it will be tricky to get a massive package passed on such a tight margin. However, smaller pieces of the immigration puzzle might find a home—doing something for Dreamers/DACA kids, helping agriculture, speeding up citizenship for doctors and nurses who are on green cards now but want to become citizens. These smaller pieces might get more traction than trying to tackle the whole immigration topic, but Democratic Senate control seemingly assures immigration legislation will be in play. Western Growers will be working hard to help create a better/new guest worker program as well as provide certainty to farmworkers who are here now with questionable status.
Every election brings both policy peril and opportunity. Western Growers and the office and staff I manage in Washington DC is here to help all our members navigate the crosscurrents, avoiding dangers and helping us all achieve success.