Senate Ag warms to Hipp, but no vote until after recess
Janie Simms Hipp, President Biden’s nominee for general counsel at the Agriculture Department, received a warm welcome from the Senate Agriculture Committee today, May 27, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the chairwoman of the committee, said she believes the committee will vote on Hipp’s nomination shortly after the Senate comes back from the Memorial Day recess.
In her opening statement, Hipp traced her background to her childhood in “far southeastern Oklahoma” where her grandmother had “what we called a shrine in our kitchen to Congressman and Speaker Carl Albert, the Little Giant, a college friend of my grandfather.”
She noted that she got out of law school in the midst of the farm crisis of the 1980s in which her grandfather lost his tractor dealership.
After working in the Oklahoma attorney general’s office, she entered a master’s in agricultural law program at the University of Arkansas and worked for many years at the National Ag Law Center there before accepting positions at the Agriculture Department’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and Risk Management Agency in the Obama administration.
She also noted that she is “a proud citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and that she worked as a tribal relations adviser for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack before establishing the USDA Office of Tribal Relations.
After returning to the University of Arkansas, she launched the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative and later was the founding CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund, a private charity established with leftover funds from the Keepseagle discrimination case against USDA.
In her opening statement, however, Hipp carefully noted that she has worked with farmers of all types and sizes, perhaps alleviating concerns from some farmers that she would be focused only on those with complaints against USDA.
Stabenow, ranking member John Boozman, R-Ark., and Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., noted Hipp’s work with Native Americans, but most of the questions from senators were about current USDA issues.
Stabenow noted Hipp’s broad experience and pointed out that “she is the first general counsel nominee in more than 20 years to have a background this expansive in agricultural law.”
Boozman noted that she has “a deep bond in Arkansas,” having received her master’s in agriculture and food law from the University of Arkansas and working at the law school.
“It is truly great to see a fellow Razorback serving our broad agricultural community with such dedication,” Boozman said.
“It is important USDA has a general counsel who can be relied upon by Congress and the agriculture community to provide sound, practical, and candid legal guidance to the department. Aggies have many concerns these days, some of which are a direct result of action, or inaction, by the department,” Boozman added.
But Boozman, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who is also ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, and Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., all tried to get Hipp to state whether she believes that the Agriculture Department has the authority to use the Commodity Credit Corporation to establish a carbon bank that, as Boozman put it, “would intervene in markets for environmental offsets, or pay farmers, ranchers, and forest owners for anything ‘carbon.’”
Hipp said the CCC has many authorities and has been used in many ways to help farmers, but that she has not done the legal research to render any opinion on whether carbon is a commodity or whether USDA can use the CCC to set up a carbon bank, as Robert Bonnie, Vilsack’s climate adviser and President Biden’s nominee to be agriculture undersecretary for food production and conservation, has argued in the past.
Republicans have repeatedly said they do not believe USDA has the authority to set up a carbon bank unless it receives that authority from Congress. Hipp promised to stay in touch with the committee on that issue and all others.
Boozman also told Hipp he hopes the Office of General Counsel “can assist USDA in releasing nearly $2 billion in financial relief to contract poultry and livestock producers and expediting the regulatory approval for billions more in assistance to producers of agricultural commodities affected by the pandemic.”
SWINE INSPECTION ISSUE
Boozman also said he remains “concerned for the future of USDA’s new swine inspection system.
(USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service announced Wednesday it will not fight a court ruling that said FSIS violated procedures when it allowed faster line speeds in pork plants.)
Boozman, Hoeven, Marshall and Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., also told Hipp that they are concerned about the cattle markets because boxed beef prices are high while cattle prices are stagnant.
“My phone is blowing up on this issue,” Marshall said, with fifth- and sixth-generation Kansas ranchers telling him their operations are endangered. In some cases, a single buyer will show up, offer a price and say “take it or leave it,” he said.
Hipp said her phone is also “blowing up,” and she promised to enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act and be in close contact with the Justice Department on anti-trust issues.
Hipp also said she has learned that as a lawyer she needs an economist and a scientist “at my elbow” to inform her about the technical issues in agriculture.
Boozman also told Stabenow she should plan for a hearing on the cattle markets after the Memorial Day recess. Stabenow told The Hagstrom Report that she, too, has heard “a lot of concern” and that she is still “working through how we proceed” to create an opportunity to discuss the cattle market issues.
Asked if she is worried about inflation, Hipp noted that “farmers and ranchers are so sensitive to the credit markets” and “farmers and ranchers need assurance their capital will not evaporate.”
Asked by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., if she would defend the Renewable Fuel Standard to the Environmental Protection Agency, Hipp said, “I promise that I will be a big voice at the interdepartmental table.”
Lujan appealed to Hipp to help a New Mexico dairy whose water became contaminated with potentially harmful manmade chemicals called PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) from a nearby Air Force base.
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., asked Hipp to help change the rules of the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees and Farm-raised Fish program to cover the problem of cormorants hovering over fish farms and eating the fish for weeks at a time, causing losses to the fish farm owners.
Hipp promised Hyde-Smith that the fish farm-ELAP issue “will be on my top five list when I am confirmed.”
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