America’s Grand Bargain on Agriculture Is in Danger

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Nobody would mistake Georgia’s 13th Congressional District for farm country. Its 700 square miles were long ago plowed under for sprawling subdivisions. Nonetheless, House Democrats recently named the district’s representative, David Scott, to be the new chairman of the powerful agriculture committee. Starting this month, he’ll play a key role in shaping the American food system.

That’s a big shift. Historically, the committee has been led by rural lawmakers whose incentives are strongly aligned with food-production interests. Scott, the first Black chairman, promises to also address issues such as climate change, racial inequality and hunger. It may not be easy to advance his priorities through a committee noted for its conservative bent. But Scott, perhaps uniquely, could be up to the challenge.

Scott succeeds Collin Peterson, a conservative Democrat who represented Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District for 30 years, before being defeated in November. The seventh district — with 30,000 farms, producing almost half the state’s agricultural sales — is the kind of place that’s supposed to produce House agriculture chairs. It’s also the kind of place that the agriculture chair generally helps out: In 2017, its farms received $214 million in government payments. Peterson held his seat partly by protecting such payments, but also by supporting ethanol, price guarantees, import quotas and other measures intended to prop up the farming economy.

As a senior rural Democrat, Peterson was well positioned to be a dealmaker in a polarized legislature. His influence was most visible on the Farm Bill, the primary way the federal government sets food and agricultural policy every five years or so (the 2018 version is worth $867 billion over a decade). It’s a contentious piece of legislation, and since the 1970s it has hinged on a delicate bargain. Urban, largely Democratic lawmakers support spending on farm programs like crop insurance that benefit rural regions; in return, rural Republicans support nutrition-assistance programs typically paid directly to needy households.

That balance is becoming ever more difficult to maintain. In 2014, the House Republican version of the bill would’ve slashed nutrition funding by $40 billion and required recipients to submit to drug testing. Democrats opposed the provision, and the impasse nearly broke the bill. In 2018, a similar dispute was compounded by Republican concerns about subsidy limits for crop-insurance premiums. In a recent phone call, Mike Stranz, of the National Farmers Union, credited Peterson for his role in keeping the balance. “Keeping the nutrition and farming communities connected is hard,” he said. “Without Chairman Peterson’s participation it’ll be harder. If you have rural Dems and urban Republicans, it gets easier.”

Unfortunately, the new Congress convening this month will have even fewer Democrats like Peterson invested in farm issues and the people they impact, thus making it harder to convince urban representatives to support the needs of farm country and vice-versa. As a conservative suburban Democrat (he also represents a small piece of Atlanta) who grew up working on a farm, Scott would seem to have the right background to reach across this divide. Peterson, notably, endorsed him for the position.

He might also have the right ideas. For one thing, his plan to bring attention to long-neglected racial inequities in agriculture will surely resonate beyond farm country. His longstanding interest in enabling farmers to sell fresh produce at farmers’ markets in areas that lack access to it (so-called food deserts) should be popular in both Americas. Finally, Scott’s strong support for rural economic-development policies, including expanded broadband, should help to boost lagging small-town economies across the country.

Whether those new priorities can become policies, instead of roadblocks to cooperation, is an open question. But the viability of America’s grand bargain on agriculture may very well depend on it.

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