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Rush, Now on House Ag Committee, Touts Work for Black Farmers, on Energy

June 30, 2021

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1st) is a new member of the House Committee on Agriculture and eager to use his position to advocate for Black farmers, as the grandson of one, and advance energy policy priorities, his longstanding pet issue on Capitol Hill.

Rush got the seat when former Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D), from the chile pepper-growing southern part of New Mexico, lost her reelection bid last November. Rural Democrats have suffered mightily over the past decade; the longtime leading Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, Rep. Collin Peterson, whose district covered rural western Minnesota, also lost reelection last year.

The new Democratic chairman, Rep. David Scott, is from the Atlanta suburbs; Democratic committeemembers are mostly from districts anchored in metropolitan areas that include some rural areas, but some, like Rush and Scott, come from wholly metropolitan districts — in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Silicon Valley and Orange County, California.

 

The committee covers more than just agriculture per se, however, just as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) covers more than farming, which includes agricultural research, foreign trade and markets, and food inspection. It covers rural development but also forestry (and the Forest Service). And it includes nutrition and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamp program.

Rush, for his part, is serving on three subcommittees: Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations; Livestock and Foreign Agriculture; and, appropriately, given his long-standing work on energy issues — he chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on Energy — Commodity Exchanges, Energy and Credit.

Federal agricultural policy has recently centered the historical plight of Black farmers up front and center after decades of neglect and discrimination in the heavily subsidized industry. The March-passed American Rescue Plan includes $4 billion in debt relief for farmers of color and another billion dollars for training, outreach, education, technical assistance and grants, The Associated Press reports.

(A federal judge in Florida recently halted the debt relief program, however, after a White farmer sued, arguing that the program discriminated on race.)

Rush's grandfather was a farmer in southwestern Georgia, where Rush was born — his hometown, Sylvester, is the so-called "Peanut Capital of the World," though his grandfather grew cotton — before moving to Chicago as a child.

"Some of my younger years were spent around agriculture and farm life," he said. "I remember my grandmother and my grandfather's farm, and some of my fondest moments were around farming and agriculture, seeing things grow."

Rush is proposing a bill that would create a new USDA requirement to provide data to the Agriculture Committee on expenditures relating to Black farmers. "Before you can rectify the problem, you've got to know the full nature of the problem," he said. "There's no data around this, that talks about how much money comes from the Department of Ag to farmers."

The number of Black farmers is in decline, he said. The Washington Post reports that the percentage of cropland Black farmers own peaked at 14% in 1910. Today, White farmers own 98% of it. Rush wants to know what role federal subsidies play in the matter.

(His grandfather lost his farm "for fear of fraud," he said, a common occurrence against Black farmers in the mid-century South. Rush has a bill planned to give families like his redress through return of the land or monetary compensation.")

 

As a Black Panther Party member in the 1960s, he pointed to his work on the Free Breakfast for Children program.

A significant percentage of Rush's constituents are SNAP beneficiaries. Rush plans to re-introduce a bill to increase food stamp payments by $20 per day and the kinds of goods that can be bought with them.

Even with the massive expansion of the welfare system via the American Rescue Plan, Rush thinks his bill has a chance at passage, especially because of his new committee position: "The chairman has control of the calendar, and if you can control the chairman, that's an added advantage."

"From a policy perspective, I'm very excited about the potential to bring the resources and agricultural purpose to my district and to be able to really utilize this robust intersection between ag and energy to try to promote a better lifestyle for my constituents," he said.

And the energy component figures into Rush's work on climate change and new energy economy jobs.

"The biggest challenge to American farmers today is soil erosion. Bad soil can't produce food. So until we deal with the issue of protecting the soil from a climate change perspective, then we'll soon run out of arable land on which to farm, and that's an imminent threat," he said.

Farm equipment could be electrified as well as trucks and agricultural transport could.

But the question of whether or not Washington can act on all of these issues stands, given the current Washington policymaking context.

The AP reports that the bipartisan compromise infrastructure agreement reached by 10 senators in June, at a quarter the size that President Joe Biden had originally proposed, "leaves unclear the fate of … promises of massive investment to slow climate change," noting Biden's campaign promises of "major spending on electric vehicles, charging stations, and research and funding for overhauling the U.S. economy to run on less oil, gas and coal" and expectations of future legislative pushes for that funding in the future.

Rush, for his part, is not optimistic for a bipartisan agreement on legislation pushing for the electrification of farm equipment or transport, adding that this is why, in his opinion, the Senate needs to reform the filibuster.

"We've got to have this dual approach: hard infrastructure and human infrastructure," he said, referring to the presidential administration's goals of spending on things like childcare left out of the senators' agreement.