Farmers and the rest of rural America were key to putting Donald Trump into the White House, energized by his attacks on overregulation and promises of tax reform. Veteran farm-policy hands say regulatory relief will be the new administration’s first order of business for agriculture.
“President Trump is not shy,” says Chuck Conner, a prominent member of an ag advisory committee to the Trump campaign and a former deputy agriculture secretary, in forecasting a forceful chief executive who conveys regulatory reform for rural America. “President Trump will drive the agenda of his cabinet.”
Ahead of the inauguration on January 20, the Trump transition team says, “We will eliminate the highly invasive Waters of the United States rule” known as WOTUS. Those are welcome words for farm groups, who spearheaded the fight against the EPA rule, which has been tied up in court since it was issued in June 2015. Dale Moore of the American Farm Bureau Federation says overregulation saps farmers’ bottom lines.
With his cabinet nominations, Trump assures a conservative turn in federal policy, arguably the greatest shift in direction since President Reagan broke the hold of New Deal-era philosophy on government operations in the 1980s.
Trump selected Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, who sued to block WOTUS, to run EPA; former Governor Rick Perry of Texas, the number 1 cattle and oil state, for energy secretary; and Representative Ryan Zinke of Montana, a supporter of an all-of-the-above approach to energy independence, to head the Interior Department, the largest federal land supervisor, with 416 million acres in its charge. The nominee for Labor secretary, Andy Puzder, “will be a key leader” in renegotiation of NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, says Trump spokesperson Sean Spicer.
Biofuel supporters are worried. Pruitt and Perry have opposed the Renewable Fuels Standard. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, Trump’s choice for U.S. ambassador to China, said at a Des Moines news conference that Trump, an ethanol backer, would call the shots. “The first thing Trump told me is, ‘Don’t worry about him (Pruitt). He’s going to be for ethanol.’ ” Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, a longtime ethanol backer, says on the Internet, “I intend to grill EPA director designee Pruitt” and Perry to make sure they’ll support ethanol.
Presidents usually start their terms with few appointees in place. Their cabinet members are usually confirmed by the Senate by late January but not the hundreds of senior and midlevel policy-makers. Executive actions such as changes in regulation are easier and quicker to achieve than debating policy with Congress. Lawmaking can consume months.
Moore of the Farm Bureau has rattled off a half-dozen areas where the Trump administration could provide regulatory relief in its first months in office: ditching WOTUS, relaxing restrictions on land use under the Endangered Species Act, “the whole suite of federal land issues,” including limits on livestock grazing on federal land, the so-called GIPSA rule on livestock marketing, proposed USDA rules on treatment of livestock on organic farms, and implementation of the GMO disclosure law enacted in July. Farm groups have claimed a victory since the GMO law preempts state labeling but mandates disclosure of GMO ingredients in food.
“We want something that will work,” Moore says, pointing to the possibility of rules that derail food-industry networks already in operation for disclosure. The GMO law allows use of a symbol, a bar code, or wording on the package.
Trump’s victory seems certain to quash a consumer group request to USDA for a cancer warning on packages of bacon, ham, hot dogs, and other processed red meat and poultry. “We’re used to taking the long view,” says the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Livestock producers and the meat industry contest a UN agency conclusion that processed meats can cause cancer.
Republican senators such as John Thune of South Dakota, a Finance Committee member, say conditions may be ripe for repeal of the estate tax this year as part of an overall tax reform bill. At present, the tax applies to estates worth more than $5.45 million.
During a postelection panel discussion, Conner, head of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said Trump’s victory put the kibosh on an environmentalist drive for tougher conservation compliance rules in the next farm bill. “Those new regulations will not happen,” he said. Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group said incentives for voluntary control of farm runoff were insufficient. He tenaciously repeated, “Nobody voted for dirty water.”
Preliminary hearings on the new farm bill are likely by spring, says Moore, but the target remains for enactment by fall 2018, when current law expires. “Everything is up in the air,” says Joshua Sewell of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which wants a robust review of the federal safety net. “There’s a real danger of spiking the football” and being overly generous because of rural America’s role in the election. Anne MacMillan, a former deputy USDA chief of staff now working at a consulting company, says, “I think you’ll see a very similar farm bill in 2018 to what we have now.”
By the time the Senate and House Agriculture committees draft the farm bill, the Trump honeymoon probably will be over. It may not matter. Congress traditionally takes the lead on farm bills and relegates the administration to an advisory role. Regional alliances – North vs. South or corn and soybeans vs. cotton and rice – matter more.
“Farm bills are written in purple ink,” says Moore, using the political shorthand of colors to denote Republicans, Democrats, and politically balanced states. “They’re not red; they’re not blue.”
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.