Voters following the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race should be pleased that Joe Biden has joined Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) in putting out a rural plan that outlines the former vice president’s policy priorities for rural America.
Much of the white paper focuses on rural health care, and here Biden won’t face the flak that Hillary Clinton had to deal with in her White House bids over a 2003 vote on rural Medicare payments. Clinton was one of only 12 senators to oppose an amendment that increased payments to providers in rural areas, bringing them in line with those in urban areas. This amendment was pushed by Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. Biden’s embrace of renewable fuels will also spare him the wrath that Clinton endured for four key anti-ethanol and biofuels votes she cast between 2002-2005.
However, on the lead section where Biden proposes to “fundamentally revitalize rural economies,” the Delawarean is going to face many questions of how he squares his long Senate record on these issues with the goals for American agriculture he would pursue as president.
On trade, Biden pledges to “stand up to China” but offers no specifics on how he would do that other than enlisting American allies. As vice president, Biden never publicly backed New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s numerous pleas to President Obama to have the Treasury Department label China a currency manipulator. And during the 1990s, as senator, Biden repeatedly voted to support Most Favored Nation status for China in 1991, 1992, 1997 and finally the most critical vote in 2000 that made MFN permanent and allowed China into the World Trade Organization.
The ramifications of the China trade policy Biden backed have been profound and as the Economic Policy Institute has found, not in a good way. Our trade deficit skyrocketed and the U.S. lost 3.2 million jobs between 2001-2013. In fact, according to EPI’s data, some of the congressional districts hit hardest by job losses are heavily rural, such as Minnesota-1 (68% rural), New Hampshire-2 (57% rural), and South Carolina-3 (40% rural). So far, the loss of Chinese export markets for American farm products does not seem to be costing President Trump political support with his base, and if Biden is the Democratic nominee you can imagine the attack ads that Trump will unleash on him over this issue alone.
Biden is also smart to call for more investment in agricultural research at our land-grant colleges and universities. Such research has been falling for the last 15 years. He also says we must ensure that research is done for the public interest rather than on behalf of corporate special interests. But here again, Biden’s Senate past is going to come back to bite him. In November 1980, in a lame duck session, the Senate passed a bill authored by Senator Birch Bayh (D-Indiana) and Senator Robert Dole (R-Kansas) to overhaul the patent and trademark statutes. One of the key provisions encouraged the private sector (agribusiness firms) to partner with the land-grants in agricultural research projects. Bayh-Dole, which was crafted in the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which Biden served, was passed by voice vote, but it incorporated S. 414 which Biden voted for back in April 1980. Speaking on the Senate floor in making the argument for his legislation, Bayh said “This new policy will make federally supported research and development more productive by allowing the private sector to develop many inventions now left gathering dust on the shelves of government agencies.”
One of the areas of ag research that took off in the 1980s was plant breeding and the development of genetically modified crops. In his white paper, Biden says that “these new technologies and the next new seeds – should be developed and owned by the American people, not private companies who can use patents to expand profits.” As this study found, corporate agribusiness influence over ag research at public higher education institutions is rampant, with companies buying seats on university advisory boards, funding buildings, labs and whole academic departments at ag schools. DuPont, perhaps Delaware’s best-known corporation, helped shell out $1.2 million between 2006-2010 to fund a plant pathology professor’s work at Iowa State University. And DuPont, which gave Biden $58,200 in campaign contributions just between 1989-2010, plays hardball with farmers on enforcement of its seed patents. A key provision of Bayh-Dole is “march-in rights,” which allow the funding agency, on its own initiative or at the request of a third party, to effectively ignore the exclusivity of a patent awarded under the act and grant additional licenses to other “reasonable applicants.” However, no federal agency has ever exercised its power to march in and license patent rights to others. Biden’s rural plan is silent on the issue of how he would liberalize the criteria used to invoke march-in rights.
Biden is right to call for funding of conservation tools like the Conservation Stewardship Program that can allow farmers to fight climate change through carbon capture and sequestration practices. He advocates for full funding, but once again, his Senate tenure is going to trip him up. After passage of the 2002 Farm Bill, Congress chopped more than $3 billion from conservation programs to the point where by 2005, three out of four farmers were rejected when they sought funding assistance from USDA. In 2005, the Senate budget reconciliation bill proposed slashing farm conservation programs by more than $1 billion. So, to help restore the funding, Senator Grassley and Senator Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), offered an amendment to cap farm subsidies at $250,000 a year and transfer the savings to conservation programs run by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. But opponents of the Grassley-Dorgan amendment raised a point of order against the amendment, arguing that it was not appropriate for a budget reconciliation bill. Grassley moved to overturn the point of order and then-Senator Biden voted against it, helping to kill it.
Like some of his fellow candidates, Biden wants to strengthen antitrust enforcement in the ag sector on inputs such as seeds and in markets where producers face ever-limited options for sales and fair prices for their crops and livestock. During debate on the 2007 Farm Bill, Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) sponsored an amendment to modify the provisions relating to unlawful practices under the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921, which prohibits meatpackers from engaging in any course of business or doing any act for the purposes or with the effect of manipulating or controlling prices. Congress enacted this when it was determined that the Sherman Act, the Clayton Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act were all insufficient to promote competitive markets. Tester’s amendment sought to reverse a 2005 decision by a three-judge panel that gutted the Packers and Stockyards Act by reinstating the law’s ability to insure free market competition in the marketplace. Biden took a walk and did not vote on the amendment, which failed by five votes to receive a three-fifths majority needed for passage.
Back in 2002, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) authored an amendment to the Senate Farm Bill on contract producer rights to apply provisions of the Packers and Stockyards Act to livestock production contracts and allow parties with production contracts the right to discuss contract terms with certain individuals. Biden was one of only 14 senators to vote against the amendment. One explanation for these votes is that they were opposed by the big meat and poultry companies like Perdue Farms. Perdue, based in Salisbury, Maryland, was a major force behind the vertical integration of the broiler industry during the 1970s. The industry has come to dominate agriculture on the Delmarva peninsula, which encompasses Delaware. Under poultry giants like Perdue and Tyson Foods, contract growers are treated like serfs on their own farms with virtually no say or power in how to run their livestock operations. Between 1996-2008, Perdue Farms shelled out $15,000 in campaign cash to Biden, which ain’t chicken feed.
In 1999, Biden voted against an amendment by Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota) that sought to impose a moratorium on mergers and acquisitions between any agribusiness company whose total assets were more than $100 million with an agribusiness company whose assets were more than $10 million for 18 months or until Congress enacted legislation addressing the problem of market concentration in the agriculture sector, whichever came first. The amendment also would have established a commission to review such mergers and make legislative recommendations. A year later, Biden voted for a Republican motion to table (kill) another Wellstone amendment to provide increased funding for the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) for investigations of anticompetitive behavior, rapid response teams, the Hog Contract Library, examinations of the competitive structure of the poultry industry, civil rights activities, and information staff, with an offset. Voting against measures sponsored by rural champions and family farm heroes like Harkin and Wellstone is very likely to cost Biden support in the Iowa caucuses. Even as vice president, Biden expended no political capital in trying to move USDA and the Justice Department to push their GIPSA reform effort to a successful conclusion. After Republicans captured the U.S. House in 2010, they used the appropriations process to cripple the Obama GIPSA reforms through riders in the USDA spending bills.
The upshot of this legislative record is that Biden risks becoming the 2020 Democratic version of Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential candidacy, which afforded the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign the ability to use Dole’s thousands of Senate votes against him. Biden’s 36 years of Senate roll calls offer his Democratic primary opponents and Trump a virtual smorgasbord of opportunities to attack him mercilessly. The first three states to cast ballots — Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina – are the nation’s 14th, 11th and 13th most-rural states, so Biden’s ideas and record on issues of concern to rural voters will receive a good test in these primary contests.
Matt L. Barron is a rural strategist and runs MLB Research Associates.