Biden's Agenda and Agriculture

Policy Shifts Could Be Tempered by GOP Senate, But Moderation Could Return to Compromise

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Former Vice President Joe Biden held the lead Friday in four states that will decide the 2020 presidential election. President Donald Trump likely will continue fighting the ballot count in court and with his public statements. If the numbers hold, though, a Biden presidency changes some of the agenda for rural America. (DTN file photos)

OMAHA (DTN) -- As ballot totals continued to add up over the past few days, the path to the presidency became more clear for former Vice President Joe Biden as he moved into the lead in the states of Georgia and Pennsylvania, which would effectively block President Donald Trump from capturing the Electoral College count.

The presidency is not quite in hand, as Trump and GOP allies have insisted they will continue to challenge ballots, meaning the fight over votes could carry on long after this week.

Regardless of the final count, the vote totals also show a chasm across the country with rural America strongly supporting President Trump while urban America heavily backed former Vice President Biden. If the election tally holds, Biden will be faced with trying to unite the country, said Chris Gibbs, an Ohio farmer who helped coordinate Rural America 2020 to challenge some of Trump's policies.

"The daily drama, the daily reality show, will stop under a Biden presidency, and that will help everybody throughout the nation because we're going to have, regardless of the outcome, we're going to still have a deeply divided America, and it's going to require a President Biden to unite the people," Gibbs said.

A Biden presidency could be a little hamstrung when it comes to an aggressive agenda, largely because it appears Republicans will hold the Senate once the Georgia races are final. Already, the idea of a Republican Senate has tempered just who could get selected for cabinet positions. But Biden served in the U.S. Senate for 36 years, including more than two decades with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., before Biden became vice president in 2009. Biden was often Obama's lead negotiator when he needed legislation to advance in the Senate when the battles over funding the government became most heated.

Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said, ideally, a Democratic president and GOP Senate would bring back some focus on bipartisan policies. Biden spent decades in the Senate and understands its dynamics, Paap noted.

"Hopefully, there will be an attitude of everybody wanting to work together," Paap said. "Every president has an agenda they want to move forward on, but you can't do that as well in a divided Congress. But you can do things that are a little more mainstream, whether it's on climate change, environmental issues, energy issues, things like that."

Even before the end of the year, Congress could still turn its attention to a new coronavirus aid package. McConnell called for another aid package earlier in the week. The last Senate attempt at an aid bill had $20 billion more in additional aid for agriculture, as well as another round of funds for the Paycheck Protection Program. That package stalled, however, because the Democratic-led House wanted more aid for state and local governments.

The election also doesn't immediately change the dynamics of COVID-19 in rural America. Rural counties across the U.S. are now the dominant hot spots for new infections and hospitalizations for the coronavirus. Cases are now topping an average of more than 100,000 daily, the highest level since the pandemic began. Biden likely would ask for more funding for COVID-19 testing, public health and hospitals, while encouraging states to enforce the use of masks.

"We've got to get a handle on the COVID pandemic to ensure we have a consistent policy for the American people and the consumer confidence to rebuild this economy, and by that I mean, for agriculture, making sure our restaurants are back in full force, making sure our schools are back in full force," Gibbs said. "Those supply chains have been disrupted. Our rural hospitals have really taken a beating as well. So that's the first thing is getting ahold of COVID."


-- Immigration: Biden proposed an aggressive immigration agenda that calls for reversing some of the Trump administration's restrictions on asylum and legalizing as many as 11 million people now in the country illegally. Biden had said an immigration package would come "Day 1" in his administration. Farm groups have pushed for more access to guest workers. Agricultural labor remains a priority for groups such as the Farm Bureau.

"We still have got to have some advancements on agricultural labor, and having a legal work force," Paap said.

-- Infrastructure: Every president comes in with an infrastructure plan, but it often gets stuck in the mud. COVID-19 highlighted the need for continued investments in expanding broadband, which the Trump administration has worked to do through various grant programs, including USDA funds.

"COVID-19 has practically identified every bad cell service and Wi-Fi service in rural America, down almost to the square mile, and certainly there is plenty of evidence of the need for that sort of thing," said Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

Biden has anchored at least parts of his infrastructure plan with a $2 trillion proposal focusing on clean energy. But Biden's plan also highlights "creating millions of good, union jobs" on roads, bridges, water systems, the electrical grid and broadband. As the country recovers from COVID-19, a large infrastructure plan could stimulate the economy and improve the nation's arteries for moving goods.

"Transportation is key, no matter whether it's road or bridges, or for us in Minnesota, it's locks and dams on the Mississippi River," Paap said. "You've got to make sure you have an adequate transportation system, and we have got one, you know, that's very aged right now."

The challenge with every infrastructure plan always comes down to how to pay for those plans. Nationally, federal taxes at the gas pump have not been raised since 1993, which is one reason highway funding always comes up short.

-- Farm Policy: Biden's farm policies have focused on shifting farm programs to more emphasis on conservation payments and using agriculture as a way to address climate change through carbon sequestration. Biden's platform called for agriculture reaching "zero emissions" over time.

"I've laid out a plan where we allow significantly more land to be put in conservation, plant deep-rooted plants, which absorb carbon from the air and, in fact, pay farmers to do it," Biden said during a town-hall event in October.

Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told DTN earlier this week that carbon programs for farmers might be one area where Republicans could work with Biden and Democrats on climate issues.

A Biden administration also could endear itself to corn growers and biofuel producers early on by making a definitive statement that the small refinery exemptions will stop and the administration will follow the Renewable Fuels Standard going forward.

"That could be a bridge to use ethanol and renewable fuels to help address climate change," Gibbs said.

-- Trade: Several groups that helped campaign against Trump were largely critical of the president's trade policy and the impact it had on agricultural markets. The U.S. still has tariffs ranging from 7.5% on $120 billion in Chinese goods to 25% on another $234 billion in Chinese goods. Additional tariffs have been imposed on trade partners for steel and aluminum.

After nearly three years of trade battles with China, U.S. farmers started seeing sales return in 2020, and they have picked up steam since midsummer. Through August, sales to China were about $1.1 billion higher than 2019 totals, but large sales were also recorded over the last two months to China as well. The Trump administration last week -- counting outstanding sales for corn and soybeans -- stated China sales were approximately 71% of the phase-one agreement targets.

The World Trade Organization has ruled that the U.S. tariffs against China are illegal. A major question going forward is how Biden will negotiate with China and whether he would maintain tariffs on Chinese goods coming into the U.S. It's expected Biden would end Trump's go-it-alone policy and seek to bring in more allies to deal with China on major issues such as currency manipulation and technology theft. Biden should look at returning to the Trans-Pacific Partnership early in his administration, Gibbs said.

"We need to reestablish our relationships with our allies, with our allied trading partners," Gibbs said. "That's really the only way we're going to effect any real change in China is through an allied partnership."

-- Taxes: A Biden presidency with a Republican Senate likely halts the breaks on Biden's plan to roll back the Trump 2017 tax cuts. Biden's tax proposal would raise income taxes on people with $400,000 or more in taxable income. A DTN analysis showed that could affect about 85,000 tax filers, based on IRS data showing tax filers with farm businesses. Biden's plan also calls for increasing the corporate tax rate to 28% and treating capital gains as ordinary income for people with more than $1 million in taxable income. That is a situation that could affect farmers selling their land, including forced sales.

Another key tax proposal likely to draw battles with farmers is Biden's proposal to reduce the estate tax exemption from the $11.58 million now back to 2009 levels of $3.5 million and increase the top rate to 45%.

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Chris Clayton