By Chris Heck
WASHINGTON, Oct. 20, 2016 – The presidential debate night started well before the general election candidates took stage yesterday. Earlier that morning in Washington, D.C., Hillary Clinton surrogate Kathleen Merrigan, a former deputy agriculture secretary, went head-to-head with Sam Clovis, Donald Trump’s senior agriculture advisor, at a Farm Foundation Forum on their candidates’ ag policy plans.
Clovis kicked off the forum with an explanation of how agricultural policy is highly interconnected with other federal policies, including the federal tax structure and international trade. Merrigan followed with her best Lettermen impersonation providing a top 10 list of why a Clinton administration would be good for agriculture and rural America, pointing to the Democratic candidate’s support for the renewable fuel standard, funding increases to USDA’s beginning farmers and ranchers program, and expansion of rural broadband.
Both Clovis and Merrigan agreed on the importance of passing the next farm bill on time – a goal that’s been hard to meet in the recent past. Both campaigns said nutrition assistance programs are important and should be funded through the farm bill, as in previous iterations of the law, to ensure passage of the law.
In regards to conservation, Clovis gave the most attention catching line of the forum. “Irresponsible farming” methods used on marginal lands in times of high commodity prices have contributed to increased runoff that created the hypoxic “dead patch” in the Gulf of Mexico, he asserted. Clovis argued that with today’s low commodity prices, now is the best time for the government to provide strong incentives for the adoption of conservation practices and to encourage farmers to retire marginal lands. Merrigan said Clinton would support a doubling in the amount of EQIP funding available to landowners.
Following the farm bill discussion, the moderator – Farm Foundation President Constance Cullman – began asking questions on matters of regulation. Clovis said that federal laws, rules, and policies don’t work for working lands and suggested establishing a commission – similar to the one that handled military base realignments – to “clean up the lanes” and “reduce conflict” between the land management agencies and landowners. He also argued that regulations could be regionalized, with the possibility of western lands having their own set of rules because of the high percentage of western federal land holdings.
Merrigan, in contrast, said our federal agencies’ leaders need to work together more seamlessly and increase education on necessary regulations like the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule finalized by the EPA earlier this year. She said the Clinton campaign believes regulation is not inherently bad, but instead, can provide a level playing field and economic stability. She harkened back to the Reagan administration as evidence, citing the time when the biotech industry went to the federal government and requested strong regulations for the sake of economic certainty.
On the subject of water issues, Merrigan argued Clinton’s position for the need to increase water quality protections. The government needs to continue its research on water scarcity and quality and multi-state solutions are needed, she added. Clovis stated that if the country ever were to have another civil war, it will be over water. He laid out three water policy options: let the states battle each other over water rights, establish a super water district, or increase government involvement.
In their closing remarks, both Merrigan and Clovis stressed the importance of voting, and that no matter who assumes the presidency, Americans need to come together to solve the problems we face in agriculture.