Living in Society

Building Back Better – a New Farm Bill

Chet Culver and Joe Biden in Cedar Rapids, May 18, 2010. Culver lost his re-election bid as Iowa voters preferred Terry Branstad redux.

My favorite Biden-Harris campaign slogan was “build back better.”

Under Donald Trump, Republicans continued their deconstruction of a government largely built by Democratic administrations beginning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They have been trying to undo Democratic programs since FDR passed the New Deal. The Trump administration provided an unprecedented opportunity for them to get to work and they took advantage of it with a wrecking ball. The country will never be the same.

Voters rejected Trump, sort of. He received more popular votes than any previous presidential candidate. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris got more, though, more than 7 million more. Now Biden has a chance to stop the destruction and salvage the good work our government is or should be doing. Whether and how he can build back better is an open question.

In Barack Obama’s presidential memoir, A Promised Land, he indicated the limits of his presidency were substantial. Obama wrote his political capital was mostly spent by the end of summer of his second year in office. The difference between Obama and Biden is the Obama administration briefly had a 60 senator, filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate during his first term. We don’t yet know if Biden will have a majority of even 50 U.S. Senators, plus the vice president. That depends on the outcome of two U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5, 2021 and there is no reason to assume Democrats will win those two seats. There is even less reason to believe Mitch McConnell has changed since 2009. He will obstruct what legislation the Biden administration proposes from day one whether he is in the majority or minority.

Biden did win the 2020 general election with substantial margins in both the popular vote and in the electoral college, which meets on Dec. 14. After the electoral college vote, even Trump acolyte and President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate Chuck Grassley said he would recognize the winner. There is no question the winner is Joe Biden.

While we wait for the electoral college to meet, Biden has been appointing his cabinet. Many of the appointees are familiar for their role in the Obama administration.

For Secretary of Agriculture Biden picked the same guy as Obama, Tom Vilsack, who served during the entire Obama presidency in that role. In Iowa people are divided about the Vilsack announcement yesterday. One expects a lackluster technocrat who will undo the damage done by Trump appointee Sonny Perdue, yet do little to accomplish what ag groups say is needed: enforce antitrust laws, strengthen local food systems, advance racial equity in ag, mitigate climate change, and bolster nutrition assistance.

I’ve been with Vilsack on a number of occasions and “lackluster” well describes his personality. If the alternative was four more years of Sonny Perdue, then we are better off if Vilsack does little else besides keep the chair warm. He’ll do more than that. The current farm bill expires in 2023, so a major task of the Biden administration will be to create and pass the next one. It is possible to influence Vilsack, and I don’t mean just by large, corporate agricultural interests. The fact that Chuck Grassley gave a thumbs up to Tom Vilsack last week is a sign that massive subsidies to the wrong kinds of agriculture will be preserved.

We can’t wring our hands and do nothing about the farm bill though. It is the single biggest agricultural policy statement during the next four years. That we don’t start from ground zero with the secretary of agriculture has pluses and minuses.

We wanted a landslide election for Democrats in 2020. The electorate had other ideas. We’ll have to do the best we can. It remains possible to find common ground with Republicans although the slim majority in the U.S. Senate makes change more difficult regardless which party holds it. After the disastrous 2010 midterm elections Obama had a productive lame duck session the rest of that year. Comparatively speaking, Obama had the wind in his sails and Biden’s decisive win in the presidential race did not have the coattails needed to enable change of the kind Obama was able to make.

I live in a red state that went big for Republicans, including President Trump. I’m just happy the rest of the country felt otherwise about defeating the president. I hope Vilsack can get beyond his previous support for big agriculture. It will be up to us to make sure he does.