AFBF staffers discuss transition to Biden administration
WASHINGTON — The Joe Biden administration and the new Congress will bring opportunities and challenges for agriculture according to lobbyists for the American Farm Bureau Federation. In a virtual workshop, broadcast Jan. 11, as part of the organization’s virtual annual convention, staff members discussed legislative and regulatory issues from trade and climate to labor and taxes.
Mike Sistak, director of AFBF for grassroots program development, said the Biden administration’s emphasis on infrastructure will “present some great opportunities for Farm Bureau and for rural communities and farmers especially when he talks abut needing to rebuild roads, waterways and ports and invest in rural broadband expansion.”
He pointed out that President Biden is a legislator “so we expect he might be comfortable cutting deals to get his agenda through Congress.” Biden is a centrist, he noted, who is willing to compromise and who “continues to maintain an optimistic view of working with the Republican party.
“He’s transitional; he knows he’s not trying to lead a revolution. He’s trying to be a good steward of government,” said Sistak.
He noted the new Congress will have a large freshman class. “There is going to be a great opportunity to start building relationships with members of Congress,” he said.
The House Agriculture Committee will be chaired by Congressman David Scott, D-Ga.;, the ranking minority member will be Congressman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa. The Senate Agriculture Committee will be chaired by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the ranking minority member will be John Boozman, R.-Ariz.
Sistak said AFBF will look to the Congressional Blue Dog, Problem Solvers and Main Street caucuses, which he described as “more-centrist. They could have a lot of influence on Capitol Hill and that could be the sweet spot for building relationship.”
Patricia Wolff, senior director of congressional relations for AFBF, reviewed likely tax policy priorities of the Biden administration and the new Congress, saying, “We are expecting big tax legislation fairly soon.
“Republicans have spent the last several sessions of Congress enacting business-friendly policies. The Democrats said they would like to focus more on individuals; they are talking about raising taxes on high-net-worth individuals and on businesses.”
She noted the narrow margins in both Houses of Congress. “That means extreme policy positions are just going to go by wayside. Parties are going to have to pick their priorities. They aren’t going to be able to pick as many. We don’t think we’ll see any big switches in policy.”
She said the current estate tax exemption is a little over $11 million per person and will stay at that level through 2025. “Democrats would like to shrink that exemption, cut it in half and some even saying they would take it to $3.5 million,” she reported.
Wolff discussed efforts to eliminate the stepped-up basis for property when someone dies. She explained the basis “determines if and when and how much capital gains tax would be paid. If you take away the stepped-up basis, that’s a problem, but even worse, some were talking about imposing capital gains taxes at death and that would mean a double hit.
“That would mean that when a family member dies and a farm is changing from one generation to the next, they would have to pay estate taxes and capital gains taxes,” Wolff said.
On a more positive note, she said, “We expect to see renewed interest in tax incentives for environmental provisions. There is support for doing things for wind, for biodiesel, for fuel pumps, for alternative fuels and we probably will get into tax incentives for carbon sequestration.”
Allison Crittenden, AFBF director of congressional relations, addressed labor issues, saying the administration is expected to implement COVID-19 requirements for employers to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.
She discussed the H-2A guest worker program saying enthusiasm for immigration reform in the House “could provide a legislative vehicle for agriculture’s issues to be addressed.”
She said President-Elect Joe Biden “has noted a willingness to provide a path to legalization for agricultural workers who have worked for years on U.S. farms. However, his platform includes support for overtime pay for farm workers, increased OSHA enforcement and a desire to raise the federal minimum wage.”
Andrew Walmsley, another AFBF congressional relations director, said a major infrastructure bill is expected and assuring that rural roads and bridges are included is of major importance.
He also said biofuels are ripe for discussion in the new administration.
The question is “How do we assure that biofuels continue on that solid footing of being a home-grown renewable energy resource?”
Issues will include higher octane blends, what do the future vehicles look like, the threats that electric vehicles bring to agriculture and whether there is a way to go to higher compression engines to ensure clean fuels into the future, he said. AFBF lobbyist Scott Bennett said reauthorization of livestock mandatory reporting is the most important action expected in the new Congress for livestock producers. “Congress will be looking to address to some degree mandatory minimum negotiated trade,” he said.
Risk management for livestock producers is also on the table according to Bennett. The issue is “how smaller producers who do not have a futures contract worth of cattle or hogs to hedge can manage their risk.”
Administratively, Bennett expects investigations of large meat packers by USDA and the Department of Justice to continue with regard to “these wild swings we saw in the pork and cattle markets in 2020.”
Don Parrish, senior director of congressional relations for AFBF discussed the future of clean water policy. He said, because no party has a significant majority in Congress, “We see absolutely no legislative path to amending the Clean Water Act one way or the other.”
Instead, he projected, the Biden administration will take executive action. “They are going to focus specifically on issues like nutrients, numeric nutrient criteria and TMDLs.”
He said the “big wild card” is what the courts may do with the Clean Water Act.
“There currently are 14 active cases that are challenging the Navigable Waters Protection rule. Until January 20, the Trump administration will be defending them. We expect the Biden administration to stop defending them while they think about how they are going to deal with the Trump rule.”
Parrish said there are concerns about the outcome if a District Court repeals the 2015 NWP regulation, and if it has nationwide effect.
He expects “less oversight and a lot smoother path for the Biden administration to make some fairly significant changes in the environmental area as it pertains to the Clean Water Act.”
However, he noted that the new administration will have “many, many priorities” and is expected to be slow to prioritizing what they want to change. His could mean, he noted, “It may take 18 to 36 months for the administration to decide how they want to amend the Clean Water Act regulations.”
Senior Director of Congressional Relations Dave Salmonsen said the US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement “will contribute to continued growth in agricultural trade in North America.”
He also noted that the new administration also may reengage with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.