November 17, 2021
Congressional business tends to move slowly, but some things have moved and more will require some action. After months of negotiation, both houses passed the "Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act," also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal. It is seen as the largest investment in infrastructure since the building of the Interstate Highway System. President Biden signed it into law on November 15, 2021. A total of 19 Republican senators and 13 Republican members of the House joined Democrats in supporting the legislation. It provides over $1 trillion aimed primarily at traditional "hard" infrastructure projects. Included in the final bill are the following:
- $55 billion to expand access to clean drinking water
- $65 billion to ensure everyone has access to high-speed internet
- $110 billion to repair roads and bridges
- $39 billion to modernize transit and $89.9 billion in guaranteed funding for public transit
- $17 billion in port infrastructure and waterways
- $25 billion for airports
- $66 billion in additional rail funding
- $7.5 billion to build a nationwide network of 500,000 electric vehicle chargers
- Over $65 billion for clean energy transmission and improving the electric grid
- Over $50 billion to help improve infrastructure resilience to climate change
- $23 billion to clean up superfund and brownfield sites
- Several billion dollars for energy research, development, and demonstration; coastal resilience; and abandoned mine reclamation
With the president's signature, work can begin on implementation of these programs. As that begins, negotiations will continue between moderate and progressive Democratic members of Congress over the size, scope, and content of the reconciliation package. This is seen as the "soft" infrastructure package. It is expected to include a variety of the party's social goals for agriculture and the public sector, including immigration, conservation, school lunches, research, and farmer debt relief. It will need the support of all Democrats because few, if any, Republican members of Congress are likely to vote for it. Moderates are asking to see the Congressional Budget Office's assessment of the bill before voting on it. It now appears that will be available prior to Thanksgiving, so action may be possible soon.
Where are we on needed action to keep the government open and provide funding for the future? The federal fiscal year ended on September 30, so some type of action was required. Just prior to the deadline, both houses passed and the president signed a continuing resolution (CR) that funds agencies through December 3 at largely the same level as last year. That date is fast approaching with no final budget action likely, so another CR, that may carry to mid-February, is likely. Short-term action was also taken on the debt ceiling to raise it to a level expected to be adequate until early to mid-December. It now appears that the approved level may be good somewhat beyond that, but further action will be needed. One thing that should be noted is that the debt ceiling is allowing the government to pay expenses that are the result of past action, not for future spending.
FASS Joins Coalition Letters
FASS works through various coalitions to provide information to legislators and the public on the value of agricultural research, the need for ongoing funding for research, and the importance of the use of the results. The following is a recent example of these activities:
- FASS joined over 140 other science-focused groups in a coalition letter to majority leaders in Congress urging them to prioritize and protect the vital investments in agricultural climate research, agricultural innovation, and agricultural research infrastructure in the Build Back Better human and climate infrastructure package. (October 20, 2021)
You can find this and past letters on the FASS website under Science Policy.
US Department of Agriculture Announces Deputy Under Secretary for REE and Other Key Staff Appointments
In a November 15, 2021, press release, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the names of individuals who will hold senior positions in Washington.
Shefali Mehta was named Deputy Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics
Mehta came to USDA from Open Rivers Consulting Associates, where she served as the founder and principal of strategy and implementation. Prior to Open Rivers, Mehta was the executive director at the Soil Health Partnership, the flagship sustainability program of the National Corn Growers Association. In this role, Mehta led the transformation and expansion of farmer-led, multi-stakeholder programs to increase adoption of healthy soil practices across the United States. Her invaluable leadership and vision helped expand the Soil Health Partnership to strengthen processes, improve structure of the organization, and boost outreach to sustain the culture of the organization. Mehta is a champion of the environment and sustainability. Her work has included identifying optimal management strategies to protect US forests from invasive species by researching invasive species management strategies and focusing on overlooked areas of detection. Mehta is also a proud supporter of community engagement and encouraging women and youth to pursue careers in science and tech. She is the founder of Teaching SMART, an organization at the University of Minnesota that aims to help underserved communities and increase STEM access to K-12 students. She received her bachelor's degree from New York University and her PhD from the University of Minnesota.
Marcia Bunger was named Administrator for the Risk Management Agency
Bunger joined USDA after serving as a county executive director for USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) for 18 years. In total, she has over 25 years of experience working for USDA in the FSA. In her role as county executive director, Bunger worked closely with Pine Ridge Tribal Government leaders and personnel to administer FSA programs on the second-largest land-based Indian Reservation in the United States. She served 15 years on the South Dakota Advisory Council to the US Commission on Civil Rights and previously held positions at Farm Credit Services of America, including crop insurance specialist and crop insurance officer. Recently, she founded an agriculture consulting LLC to provide assistance to area farmers and ranchers and to work with a local crop insurance agency selling and servicing crop insurance policies. Bunger is also the owner and operator of a 2,000-acre, family-owned farm. Bunger graduated cum laude and received her bachelor's degree from Augustana College. She will be the first member of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community and the first woman to serve as administrator for the Risk Management Agency.
Colin Finan was named Senior Advisor for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture
Most recently, Finan served as vice president at McCabe Message Partners, a Washington-based public relations firm focused on healthcare communications. At McCabe, Finan was responsible for overseeing editorial content and consumer-facing communications for more than 50 foundations and non-profit clients. Prior to McCabe, Finan worked as a manager and senior associate on the Safe Food Project at Pew Charitable Trusts. Colin was responsible for managing all federal and state outreach regarding passage and implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. Finan received his bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin.
Status of USDA Appointees Requiring Senate Confirmation
Things are beginning to move on this front, the most recent being the confirmation of Adrienne Wojciechowski to serve as assistant secretary for congressional relations on November 5. Below is an overview of the current situation.
Seven confirmed: Secretary Tom Vilsack; Deputy Secretary Jewel H. Bronaugh; General Counsel Janie Simms Hipp; Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Jennifer Moffitt; Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong; Undersecretary for Rural Development Xochitl Torres Small; and Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations Adrienne Wojciechowski.
Five at Senate: Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie; Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Homer Wilkes; Undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics Chavonda Jacobs-Young; Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Margo Schlanger; and Undersecretary for Food Safety Jose Emilio Esteban.
Three positions have no nominee yet named.
USDA Announces New European Union Sustainable Agriculture Collaboration
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and European Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski announced a new initiative between the United States and the European Union (EU) to better coordinate efforts to innovate and support sustainable agriculture practices. This new platform will assist in the exchange of science and innovation best practices. While the action signals a unique opportunity to align US and EU policies and initiatives, there remains significant work to be done on topics such as trade policies and production standards as the two entities move closer to alignment.
FASS Science Policy Committee
The FASS Science Policy Committee (SPC) meets via Zoom call. The group continues to make progress on updating the FASS Science Policy Statements. At noon (eastern time) on November 30, the FASS SPC will host a webinar titled "Animal protein: From pen/feedlot/barn or from a petri dish/lab?" as part of the NCFAR Hill Seminar Series. Keith Belk, professor and head of the Department of Animal Science at Colorado State University, will be the presenter.
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 serving on the SPC or 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