Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Hello, and welcome to Dairy Defined. A new Congress and a new administration means new opportunities for dairy. From a potential new round of coronavirus assistance, even as the latest package is being implemented, to a narrowly divided Congress, bipartisanship will be the call of the day and it means it will take a lot of skill for dairy’s voice to be heard. Bringing us his skills today as senior Vice President for Government Affairs Paul Bleiberg from the National Milk Producers Federation. Thanks for joining us today, Paul.
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: Good to be here. Thanks for having me.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Set the stage for us a bit, Paul, coming off an incredibly turbulent January, what’s the atmosphere on Capitol Hill right now?
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: Well, the atmosphere on Capitol Hill is unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed before. Just given the turbulent times we’ve been through in the last several weeks, obviously marked foremost by the January 6th attack on the Capitol. I think there’s significant mistrust between the two parties right now. There’s a great deal of skepticism about what can be accomplished working together, and yet at the same time, a new administration trying to find its footing really during unprecedented times. I don’t know the last time we had an administration take office during a global pandemic.
Obviously 12 years ago, the Obama administration took office during the financial crisis, but the problems caused by that crisis didn’t necessarily prevent them from getting stood up and staffing and taking office in a normal way. Whereas obviously given how the pandemic is up into the way we do everything on a day-to-day basis, that’s created challenges for the administration and for the new Congress, frankly. And as the new, House and Senate organize and everything like that, it’s just taken extra time. And when you factor in the political temperature right now being what it is, just in light of the last few weeks and really the last several months probably, it’s a very tense atmosphere right now. And so it’s possible that time heals a lot of things, and over the course of the next few weeks, people will get down to work. And I think you’re starting to see a sense for that, but it starts off very heated.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Well, even in a normal time, you’d have a lot of changes in agriculture right now. Is it three of the four principles on the congressional agriculture committees are due this time?
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: That’s exactly right. Of the four principals leading the agriculture committees, only one Senate Ag chairwoman incoming Debbie Stabenow is returning to a post that she’s held before. She was chairwoman during the 2014 farm bill and ranking member during the 2018 farm bill. The other three principals are all new to their roles. Senator John Bozeman, Congressman GT Thompson, and Congressman David Scott. Now they’ve all served on the Ag committee, they’ve all been part of multiple farm bill conference committees and things like that. And so they know the issues well, but they’re stepping into really management roles for the first time in their careers in that sense. And they’re having to bring on staff and they’re having to kind of get their footing, and just like there’s the personnel adjustment, you have a shift in priorities. Those three people are different from the three people that they replaced, and there’ll be new top priorities for each of them that their predecessors might not have had, and some of their predecessors priorities might fall down the list, or maybe be realigned across the different players. And it’s interesting to just look at that dynamic a little bit when you look at the geography and when you look at the ideology of the different members, it’ll shake out a little bit differently than it has on the past.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: So the Biden Administration takes office, first thing they’re doing, they’re doing a lot of things, but the first major legislative package is this coronavirus virus stimulus that you’re talking about. What’s important to remember about this package, and what’s important to note in terms of the round that was passed in December, since really when you’re talking about coronavirus assistance, there’s two factors at play right now.
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: Looking at the package that passed in December, much of that package is yet to be implemented. Obviously it only passed right before Christmas and it was signed into law a few days after. And then you had several weeks of January where you have this transition going on. So a lot of the work to implement the package has yet to occur. Senator Stabenow was able to get a billion dollars roughly in direct support for dairy in the package. And that was really, really helpful, and kudos to her for the work doing that. The two pieces there are the dairy donation program that we’re working hard to stand up, as well as the supplemental dairy margin coverage payments. And of course, she worked on this with former chairman Peterson and the other principals at the time. But a lot of that has to be stood up. The only piece from the Ag provisions of the bill in December that has already been implemented with some of the purchase money being put toward another round of the food box program by the previous administration now, but much of the rest of the work still has to be stood up.
So that’s going on against this backdrop where the Congress and the administration are taking a look at what’s the next package going to be? How is it going to be structured? Is it going to be done in a bipartisan manner or are Democrats going to pass it through budget reconciliation if they’re unable to get enough Republicans who want to vote for something on the scale that they want to do? So a lot of those discussions are going on right now. I think there’ll certainly be additional nutrition assistance in that package on SNAP and WIC. You might see some discussions on supply chain issues come up, and you might see efforts to fix problems that have arisen in some of the past bills, right? The bill we did in December fixed a number of issues, including around payment limits that had arisen from previous relief package was done by USDA. So certainly that kind of discussion will happen too.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And all of this is happening while you have new nominees going before the Senate, you have a looming impeachment trial in the Senate. How confident are we that Congress can walk and chew gum at the same time?
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: Well, Congress kind of has a mixed track record on that. I think they can walk and chew gum when they need to, and I’ll give an example of that in December of 2019, a little over a year ago now the Congress moved through the impeachment process in the House at the same time that they completed USMCA and a government funding package for the 2020 fiscal year. They did all three of those things in pretty rapid succession. So it does happen. And other times though, it’s really difficult for it to happen if the political tensions just get in the way. So you kind of need for both parties to feel that they have an incentive to move things through relatively quickly. It does appear that the Senate is moving at a relatively quick pace now on nominations, I think President Biden maybe didn’t have as many of his people in on day one as he would have liked. And some of the Senate organizing delays were part of that, but now it looks like they’re moving at a pretty good clip. Senator Stabenow has indicated, I think, they would want to move forward on agriculture secretary designee Vilsack very soon. And so it’d be great to get him in place. And I think you’re seeing a lot of bipartisan support for most, if not all of these, of these nominees.
And so that’s happening pretty quickly. Against that backdrop, the discussions on the COVID package are ongoing. I think that the decisions have really yet to be made on how they’re going to proceed, but it’s also important to factor that in a couple of weeks the Senate will go through the impeachment trial. And depending on how that plays, that’ll impact the temperature and the tensions again, and may impact the ability for bipartisanship on either the nominees.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And while all that is happening there’s all sorts of other things that don’t rise to the headline level, that you don’t necessarily see on a TV news report. What’s the most important thing happening in the federal government right now that people might miss that would affect dairy?
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: The most important thing happening that people might miss is all of the staffing going on below the principal level, right? Everybody knows by now that we have certain people nominated to be cabinet secretaries, and then we have new committee chairs, and ranking members and things like that, but it’s really the staff, not just in Congress, but also in the agencies that not only do a lot of the work, but give key advice to the principals on decision-making. And some of those are announced publicly, but a lot of that goes on behind the scenes. And it’s the kind of thing that if people don’t pay attention to or notice, they may miss key signals that members of Congress or administration officials are sending based on those staff hires. And that may set the tone for how a lot of issues are done.
So that’s something that we pay a lot of attention to. We always tell our members when they lobby Capitol Hill, get to know the staff because of the role they play, the same certainly applies to the administration.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And that brings up really the final point here, which is for all of the disruption that you see with the new Congress and new administration, there’s also a lot of continuity. There are a lot of familiar faces that may be in different places, but they’re still there. This simply is not a clear break with past. And that kind of goes on with our own work too, because for all of its travails last year, you could say dairy policy had a pretty successful year. I mean, what are two or three of those successes from 2020 that you can sort of build on through 2021 as this new environment takes shape?
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: Well, I think we’ll start with COVID, because of the significant impact that it’s had on everything we’ve done. The CARES Act passed last March, really laid the foundation for CFAP 1 and CFAP 2, as far as providing USDA the resources. And again, I’ve mentioned it already, but kudos to Senator Stabenow and Senator Schumer for their work in getting dairy the priority recognition in the CARES act in those negotiations, as well as support from other members that we were able to use in working with USDA to make sure that dairy got a significant level of support, especially on those direct payments.
Now, it wasn’t perfect, obviously we had some people that felt the payment limitations needed to be adjusted and things like that, and we did what we could there, but that was significant aid. Obviously, a lot of product purchases have been done and that’s had an impact to some of that has caused some challenges we’ve had to fix, but on the whole, the aid was very significant and certainly a major improvement over what we had seen in the trade mitigation packages from a couple of years prior.
Turning over to the more traditional issues that we work on, and a couple of other successes, one was in the trade space. We had done a lot of work in 2019 to get USMCA passed in Congress and in early 2020 in the Senate. And last year we built about a quarter of the house and a quarter of the Senate to support us in our efforts working with the US trade representative to make sure that enforcement action was taken against Canada for them not upholding their commitments under the agreement. At the end of the year, the previous administration announced the initial steps in that action. I think we’re hopeful to continue that work with the new administration and the new Congress. And so that I think was a notable accomplishment.
And we also were able to see a number of successes just in the normal appropriations government funding process. These are not the kinds of things that get as much attention every day, but a couple of important programs were funded, whether that relates to farmer stress or some pilot programs around enhancing milk consumption, some helpful language to move us forward on the issue of FDA enforcing standards of identity, which is something we’re certainly going to continue pushing, and also on school milk options. And so, again, even though COVID was really in the forefront of most discussions, there was a lot of work being done behind the scenes in other areas. And so we were pleased with what we were able to do in a number of contexts.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: This is Paul Bleiberg, Senior Vice President for Government Relations at the National Milk Producers Federation. Thanks again for joining us, Paul.
Paul Bleiberg, NMPF: Thanks for having me. Look forward to being on again.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And that’s it for today’s podcast. For more about dairy and its response to coronavirus and all of its policy issues, go to our website nmpf.org. Also check out an NPFs new take action page. Take a look at what we’re active on today and ways you can make your voice heard on dairy policy. You could just do that on pull down from the homepage menu. You can subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, Google Play, and iTunes under the podcast name Dairy Defined. We’ll talk again soon.