February 5, 2021
President Biden has named a wide range of scientists and policymakers to advise his administration. One significant action was that the Office of Science Technology and Policy (OSTP) will be part of the Cabinet for the first time. The OSTP has a broad mandate to advise the president on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs. Last week, President Biden asked geneticist Eric Lander to head the OSTP. Lander, who played a key role in the Human Genome Project, would be the first biologist to lead OSTP. He will require Senate confirmation.
On February 3, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced an agreement with Republicans to organize the evenly split chamber. The Democrats are in control of the Senate because Vice President Harris would cast the deciding vote in the case of a tie. This ends a standoff that had prevented the new Democratic majority from setting up some operations, including committee ratios and other details. Democrats will now assume the chairs of the committees and finalize committee assignments.
Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry: The committee assignment process in the Senate is guided by Senate rules along with party rules and practices. The Senate still needs to vote on the rules agreed to for the current session of Congress. That should happen shortly, allowing committee action to begin. The following leadership will be in place:
- Chair: Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)
- Ranking Member: Senator John Boozman (R-AR)
Committee membership and other information will be available on the committee website: https://www.agriculture.senate.gov/.
House Agriculture Committee: Membership of the committee is not finalized, but leadership has been determined. Congressman David Scott (D; GA-13) will serve as chair. Scott currently is the chair of the House Agriculture subcommittee on Commodity Exchanges, Energy, and Credit and a member of the House Agriculture subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management. Congressman Glenn Thompson (R; PA-15) will be the new ranking member. Thompson currently is the ranking member of the House Agriculture subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management. He also serves on the Livestock and Foreign Agriculture and the Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research subcommittees.
Committee membership and other information will be available on the committee website: https://agriculture.house.gov/.
United States Department of Agriculture Organization
Tom Vilsack has been nominated to serve again as Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Vilsack is well known: he led the USDA under President Barack Obama and was one of a few cabinet members to serve through both terms. He was governor of Iowa from 1999 until 2007 and most recently served as president and CEO of the US Dairy Export Council. The Senate Agriculture Committee met on February 2, with Senators Stabenow and Boozman jointly leading the hearing to consider Vilsack's nomination. Recovery from the impact of COVID-19, trade, climate change, racial disparity, food security, supply chain resilience, and market transparency were major areas of discussion. Strong support was noted for land-grant universities and rebuilding the research infrastructure. At the end of the session, the committee favorably reported out the nomination. Vilsack will now be considered by the full Senate for confirmation.
In addition to Secretary of Agriculture, 14 other positions at USDA require Senate approval:
- Deputy Secretary of Agriculture
- Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm Production and Conservation
- Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services
- Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety
- Under Secretary of Agriculture for Marketing and Regulatory Programs
- Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and Environment
- Under Secretary of Agriculture for Research, Education, and Economics
- Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development
- Under Secretary of Agriculture for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs
- Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Congressional Relations
- Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Civil Rights
- General Counsel
- Chief Financial Officer
- Inspector General
The fact that the Senate has not yet been able to act on nominees requiring confirmation means that several critical positions are filled by individuals in short-term “acting” roles. The following is a current overview of where we stand on those positions:
USDA Acting Secretary Kevin Shea’s current role is administrator of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. He was appointed on June 18, 2013, after having served as acting administrator since June 2012.
Dr. Jewel H. Bronaugh has been nominated to serve as deputy secretary of the USDA. Bronaugh, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services since 2018, was previously executive director of the Center for Agricultural Research, Engagement, and Outreach at Virginia State University (VSU). She also served as state executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency and as dean of VSU’s College of Agriculture. Bronaugh holds a bachelor’s degree in education from James Madison University, and a master’s in education and doctorate in career and technical education from Virginia Tech.
Several key appointments have been named. You can find news of additional appointments as they are announced here: https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases.
While little legislation has moved yet in the new Congress, executive orders, statements on the record, and the background of nominees and appointees indicate that hunger, climate change, trade and immigration will be priorities for the administration. During the Vilsack hearing, both he and the committee senators noted the importance of and need for additional research as well as funding and rebuilding the research infrastructure.
Opportunity for Input on Research Priorities
As noted in last month’s report, the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Food Animal Production National Program 101 and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) are collecting input to establish research priorities for the next five years. Listening sessions have been held and they are conducting an online survey that is open until February 11, 2021, to identify and rank important issues relative to animal production commodities and ask for input on impacts of current ARS and NIFA programs as well as future direction of the research programs. Please click on the following Survey Monkey link to complete the survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/99JLJW8.
You are invited to USDA's forum Building Resilience in Agricultural & Food Systems through Innovative and Strategic Partnerships on Wednesday, February 17, 2021, from 1:00 to 4:30 pm EST.
Presenters include leaders from USDA, the ag industry, and community organizations followed by open discussion and Q&A. This forum discussion will highlight how innovative and strategic partnerships among federal, state, local, and private partners support the building of resilience in agricultural and food systems, with a focus on food systems and disaster recovery. Held in conjunction with USDA’s Ag Outlook Forum, this Microsoft Teams Live Event is hosted by USDA’s Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement (OPPE) and Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) Mission Area - Register now! The link to the event will be provided upon registration.
Please contact me if you have questions, ideas, or suggestions on any of these or other policy issues. We will provide additional information as it becomes available. We need to work together to maintain a strong and effective national research effort.
If you are interested in communicating occasionally with members of Congress on issues related to animal agriculture, we are looking for FASS science policy advocates. Please contact me for details.
Ken Olson, PhD, PAS
FASS Science Policy Coordinator