Changes Ahead?

Published online: Jun 14, 2021 Feature, News Luther Markwart, Executive Vice President, ASGA
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This article appears in the June/July 2021 issue of Sugar Producer.

As we hit the midpoint of 2021, there are multiple issues to assess. First, the nation’s recovery from the pandemic has been slow and steady with numerous twists and turns. The return to some semblance of normalcy has been a long and often difficult journey. With vaccinations more widely distributed and people emerging from isolation, the economy should come roaring back to life. However, COVID variants and potential booster requirements mean we will still be navigating post-pandemic uncertainty. 

Washington’s return to normalcy will lag behind the rest of the nation. Today, this has more to do with security concerns than with COVID. In the past we could make visits to congressional offices with no restrictions. These days, we must complete a daily health screening survey, be put on a visitor list for the sergeant at arms to approve our entry, be issued a visitor badge, wear masks at all times, and have an office escort from building entry to building exit. We hope and expect these restrictions will ease over time.

As I’ve shared before, restricted access to the Capitol has been ongoing for well over a year now. However, that has never stopped us from representing the industry to Congress and its members over that time. With a new Congress, there is always a lag in fundraising. However, since the first of April we have been holding Zoom fundraisers for dozens of members and are starting to meet in person under limited conditions which, by law, are outside the Capitol complex.

The two overriding policy issues are climate change and infrastructure, each having huge implications and potential threats and opportunities for American agriculture. These issues will garner lots of bipartisan attention, and policies will be forged with urgency and spirited debate.

Climate Change

The U.S. has rejoined the Paris Climate Accord. In April, the president met virtually with 40 world leaders to work toward cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in half by 2030 and to a net zero by 2050. On that same day, the Senate Agriculture Committee approved the Growing Climate Solutions Act introduced by senators Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Mike Braun of Indiana. The bill is backed by a strong bipartisan group of 33 senators and 60 agriculture organizations, including the American Sugar Alliance, which represents both the beet and cane industries. The bill would create a structure at USDA to help farmers monetize the climate value of their sustainable practices and have better access to voluntary carbon markets. A USDA-led certification program would help farmers and ranchers identify reliable technical assistance providers or verifiers to facilitate participation in carbon credit programs offered in the private sector. Representatives Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Don Bacon of Nebraska also introduced a companion version of the bill in the House.

U.S. agriculture creates about 10 percent of our nation’s GHG emissions. We are looking for ways to reduce it while generating income for growers from private or public sources. We would hope companies and consumers will pay a premium for crops grown using climate-improving techniques, but the market will sort that out. There are no simple answers to complicated questions.

Admittedly, this is a tough puzzle to solve, but it is solvable. For much of the past year an intense effort has been underway by coalitions of producers, processors, foresters and environmentalists to lay out a policy blueprint that creates voluntary, incentive-based payments to farmers from either the public or private sector. Your voice has been prominent in those discussions.

Infrastructure

In March, the president’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan kicked off a national debate on the issue. President Biden took an expansive view on what constitutes infrastructure. Some members of Congress took alternative perspectives, and debate and negotiations commenced. Clearly, our roads and bridges need repair. Rural connectivity, including broadband and mobile service, needs significant investment. These items are critical to a healthy and productive agricultural industry as well as the small businesses in our communities. There is a bipartisan recognition that these issues should be addressed.

Like any major piece of legislation, the “wish list” and cost of the bill increase over time. Negotiations on scope and cost have been comprehensive. Debate on whether the package should be bipartisan or partisan, using budget reconciliation to avoid a filibuster, dominated early discussion. Whatever the outcome, we hope that bipartisanship wins the day.

One of the biggest challenges to have vexed past administrations is the cost associated with infrastructure spending and how to pay for it. The Biden administration has proposed increased corporate tax rates. Other ideas have also been floated, such as changes to the individual code or increases in user fees. With each, “pay-for” agriculture has a stake in the discussion. We are especially sensitive to changes in the individual tax code, as the vast majority of farm families pay taxes through this code. We’ve been watching the discussion very closely and readying the defenses to ensure that farm families are not hit with harmful tax changes. For agriculture to be sustainable long term, we must be able to pass on our farms to our kids with a predictable and realistic tax code. 

2022 Elections

With initial data from the 2020 census now available, we know that 13 states will either lose or gain House seats in the 2022 election. Texas picked up two seats, and Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon each picked up one seat. Seven states will lose one seat each: California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Due to the pandemic, it has been challenging to collect 2020 census data. The precise data to draw new districts won’t be available until September, which creates uncertainty for many House members. An already charged campaign season will be even messier as both interparty and intraparty fights dominate 2022 races.