Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight

Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight
© Greg Nash

President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Democrats hope Biden can flip Manchin and Sinema On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Democrats advance tax plan through hurdles MORE is eyeing the departments of Agriculture and Transportation as key partners for achieving his climate goals, exciting progressives by broadening efforts beyond traditional environmental agencies.

Biden’s climate plan calls for harnessing the power of agriculture to capture and store carbon while innovating to reduce its own footprint. In the transportation sector, he’s called for a massive investment in transit and electric vehicle infrastructure to reduce reliance on gas-powered vehicles.

But some of Biden’s potential picks are already generating concern from left-leaning interest groups, particularly those that want the incoming administration to surpass former President Obama’s accomplishments by using the full force of the federal government to tackle climate change.

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Among those considered to lead the Department of Agriculture (USDA) are former Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampProgressives prepare to launch counterattack in tax fight Business groups aim to divide Democrats on .5T spending bill On The Money: Powell signals Fed will soon cut stimulus MORE (D-N.D.) and Rep. Marcia FudgeMarcia FudgeSanders goes back to 2016 playbook to sell .5T budget Activists detail legal fight against HUD for Philadelphia housing Photos of the Week: Rep. Cori Bush, Beirut clash and duck derby MORE (D-Ohio.).

Fudge has been openly campaigning for the job, telling Politico earlier this month that she’s been “very, very loyal to the ticket” and encouraging the Biden administration to place Black leaders in roles beyond traditional posts like Housing and Urban Development secretary.

Heitkamp has been more circumspect but didn’t rule out interest. After losing reelection in 2018 after only one term, she formed the One Country Fund, a political action committee that seeks to bolster Democratic prospects in rural America, an area where Democrats have struggled to make inroads.

“Joe Biden has the opportunity to put together a Cabinet that reflects all parts of America, and I know what decision he makes is going to be the right one,” Heitkamp told The Hill.

“We all have to make America unified to work again, so I’m very, very excited about Joe Biden as our next president of the United States and for Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisLive coverage: California voters to decide Newsom's fate Florida woman faces five years in prison for threatening to kill Harris Australia's COVID overreaction could come to US MORE as our next vice president.”

Heitkamp’s government record before coming to Congress included defending North Dakota’s anti-corporate agriculture law as state attorney general in the 1990s. In Washington, she served on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

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But her potential nomination for Agriculture secretary is already facing resistance from a host of left-leaning environmental and farmworker groups, hitting the former senator for her moderate voting record, acceptance of campaign contributions from large agribusiness and her overall environmental record.

More than 130 groups, including Friends of the Earth and Farmworker Justice, sent a letter to the Biden transition team urging them to avoid selecting Heitkamp due to her acceptance of donations from fossil fuel companies and her support for President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE’s first Environmental Protection Agency chief. Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinDemocrats hope Biden can flip Manchin and Sinema On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Democrats advance tax plan through hurdles House Democrat says she won't support reconciliation bill 'at this early stage' MORE (W.Va.) was the only other Democrat to support Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEPA bans use of pesticide linked to developmental problems in children Science matters: Thankfully, EPA leadership once again agrees Want to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump MORE when he was nominated.

“Heitkamp’s history of receiving generous corporate donations coupled with her voting record is a strong indication that she would prioritize the interests of corporate agribusiness giants over the needs of family farmers,” the groups wrote, saying she should not be responsible for “leading an agency that is crucial to President-elect Biden’s bold plan to fight climate change.”

“We urge the administration to select one of the many other highly qualified candidates — including several women candidates and candidates of color — without ties to agribusiness and fossil fuels,” they added.

Some of the signatories, like Food and Water Watch, have more directly thrown their support behind Fudge and are working on circulating another letter to boost her candidacy.

Fudge, who did not respond to request for comment, is one of the higher-ranking Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee. She hails from a more urban district but would come to the job with a record of fighting against Trump’s rollbacks to food assistance programs.

"We need to start to look outside of the box and, as they have promised, a Cabinet that is representative of this country as well as representative of the people who have supported them," Fudge told Politico last week. "I think it’s a natural fit.”

In addition to left-learning groups, Fudge also appears to have support from the agriculture industry. 

“She’s stood up for food stamps and nutrition issues and had a pretty ultimately successful fight or push with USDA on overturning some of eligibility and benefits rules. And she's been a steadfast defender on a lot of nutrition topics, so I think that's elevated her status in the running,” an agricultural lobbyist told The Hill.

Heitkamp, who is largely seen as the front-runner, also has support from major farm groups. Even with early opposition from progressives, she could face a smoother confirmation process by relying on votes from her former colleagues in the Senate.

“Heidi is universally regarded for being a very smart, personable individual. And of course she knows agriculture and knows it very well and served on Ag committee. And so as [Biden] looks at having a Cabinet that reflects the country, she would certainly reflect the heart of production agriculture,” said Earl Pomeroy, a former North Dakota lawmaker and longtime colleague of Heitkamp’s in state government.

“She’s certainly shown she’s got policy chops at the serious national leadership levels. She knows ag, she has an established record on support for nutrition programs and can get confirmed. That makes her a compelling candidate,” he added.

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At the Transportation Department, Biden’s list of potential nominees is likely to include Rep. Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerBottom line American workers need us to get this pandemic under control around the world Democrats on key panel offer bill on solar tax incentive MORE (D-Ore.) and Los Angeles Mayor Eric GarcettiEric GarcettiLA City Council votes to crack down on protests outside homes Bass says she is 'seriously considering' running for LA mayor Top official says LA fire department a 'very hostile work environment' for women MORE (D).

Unions have already been vocal about their opposition to any pick that may seek to reduce the workforce as a way to cut costs for transportation systems — something they worry could be portrayed as a necessity in switching to greener technology.

“The human element of this question is always the most important thing to us and advancement of environmental goals can be done in way that doesn’t tremendously negatively impact workers,” said John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union, adding that green goals could be used as cover by some transit authorities or companies to “advance profit making.”

Garcetti, who has backed free transit in Los Angeles, did not respond to a request for comment, while Blumenauer didn’t rule out interest in the Cabinet post.

"My goal is to help move transportation priorities through Congress and to be helpful to this new administration in any way I can. That’s what I’m focusing on right now,” he said in a statement.

Blumenauer, a regular bike commuter, is co-chair of the Congressional Bike Caucus. 

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Whoever takes over the top spot will be under pressure to transform an agency that has largely overseen highway construction in recent decades.

“We don’t need someone to be steward over a 1950s program for the next four to six years,” said Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, which encourages increased funding for transit.

“We need to update the program to address the issues of today.”