COVID-19 relief, infrastructure and cicadas all making noise in Washington

Luther Markwart, executive director for the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, recaps the events affecting the sugarbeet industry taking place in Washington, D.C.

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(File photo)

The first hundred days of the Biden Administration have been a whirlwind of activity. On the personnel front, the cabinet is in place. Second- and third-tier appointees are being confirmed for some departments and agencies, while others are still in the works. Key agriculture and environment appointees are steadily advancing. Many appointees not requiring Senate confirmation have been installed in recent months. U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai was the only cabinet officer to receive a unanimous vote (98-0) in the Senate. This is a clear signal to our trading partners that she has the full bipartisan support for tackling tough trade problems, particularly with China. She now needs a tough and experienced agriculture trade negotiator.

On the policy front, without question, President Joe Biden ’s largest accomplishment to date is the massive and very partisan COVID-relief bill. Given the size alone, $1.9 trillion, administering this relief will take time. While certain aspects of the measure are straightforward, such as assistance checks, which hit bank accounts rapidly, other provisions will take longer. Agriculture received several rounds of commodity assistance in previous packages, and with commodity prices recovering, the need for additional assistance was less pressing during this round. But rural communities’ needs don’t start and stop with agriculture. Additional funding will be provided for rural healthcare facilities, state and local government, and improved broadband. Such assistance takes longer than simply depositing checks, but it’s a positive development for our communities.

As we pivot away from COVID response and relief, recovery is very much on the minds of lawmakers in Washington. Congress and the administration are moving rapidly on a host of policy priorities, the current frontrunner is an infrastructure bill. During the last congress, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee drafted, marked-up, and passed a major infrastructure package. The Senate never took up the measure. Given how far the bill went last congress, we expect this effort to form the baseline of this year’s work. Debate and passage was previously a mostly partisan affair, but given the need for economic stimulus and the sad state of our nation’s infrastructure, we are optimistic that common ground can be had for an issue that enjoys widespread public support. The big debate will be around its price tag. With $6 trillion spent on COVID relief (mostly borrowed) and lower tax revenues, there will be a pitched battle over the increased taxes to pay for an infrastructure bill.

A surge in illegal immigration and failure to improve guest worker programs has plagued many administrations from both parties. It is the Congress's job to address it. While the House passed a bill, it has tough sledding in the Senate, but there needs to be clarity and certainty so agriculture businesses, in particular, can plan and make decisions.

It is also the time of year again when the annual appropriations process kicks off. ASGA and U.S. Beet are continuing our efforts to increase beet research funding. Past success around funding increases are gradually building research capacity at public institutions. This is very welcomed news. Our efforts, and the advancements of our researchers, will continue to improve the beet industry and return dividends to growers. While the appropriations process presents opportunities for our industry, it is also the time of year our opponents attack our programs with harmful amendments. As always, we are prepared to beat back these ill-conceived efforts.


It is still uncertain as to when the Capitol and congressional office buildings will reopen to the public. COVID variant strains along with lingering security concerns will keep members on edge, so we continue to utilize video conferences. But the good news is the vaccines are moving forward at a steady pace and a cascading recovery is well underway. For a city that thrives on tourism and interaction between policymakers and citizens, Washington has been devastated. A strong recovery is desperately needed.

Finally, the buzz around Washington this spring will be more than political intrigue. Having been cooped up for over a year it is time to get outside and enjoy fresh air and open spaces. However, after a 17-year hiatus, the cicadas (the size of your thumb) will emerge in numbers of biblical plague proportions, an estimated 1.5 million per acre! The sound of their wings is deafening and will test our patience once again.

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