Battle-hardened by the eight-month fight to secure disaster relief money for his South Georgia district, Tifton Congressman Austin Scott is ramping up his behind-the-scenes push to become the top Republican on the committee that oversees the Department of Agriculture.
Scott is one of three GOP lawmakers vying to lead the party on the House Agriculture Committee, the plum panel that writes the farm bill, oversees the food stamp program and looks out for ag interests following natural disasters and trade fights.
And while the real maneuvering won’t happen until after the 2020 elections, Scott said the tenacity he displayed in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael and the bipartisan relationships he’s forged make him an ideal choice to lead the typically congenial committee.
"People saw through the disaster with Hurricane Michael that I'm gonna fight and I'm not gonna let it go,” Scott said in an interview. “Some will like that and some will not, but in the end I'm a fact-driven decisionmaker and we're going to work hard and we're going to fight for it."
First elected in 2010, Scott is currently the top Republican on the subcommittee focused on commodity exchanges, working hand-in-hand with the panel’s Democratic chairman, fellow Georgian David Scott.
The former state legislator and insurance broker was known more as a voice on rural development issues, but he became a fierce advocate for Southeastern farmers after Hurricane Michael devastated his 8th Congressional District, which stretches from Macon’s northern suburbs to Valdosta, in October 2018.
After language he and Albany Democrat Sanford Bishop shepherded was omitted from a must-pass spending bill in January, he grew increasingly exasperated with the tense partisan rhetoric over Puerto Rico funding that had held up disaster relief talks. He was one of the only congressional Republicans to publicly criticize the White House for its hardline stance during the standoff, which came to an end in June.
Scott credits the Georgia Legislature with keeping many local farmers afloat by quickly approving loan money after the storm, and he said one of his priorities as leader of the Agriculture Committee would be streamlining the disaster relief process. He said he’d also focus on rural development, particularly bringing broadband to underserved areas, and take another look at crop insurance and federal price support for commodities.
The top committee spot doesn’t officially open up until January 2021, and whether Scott is running for chairman or ranking Republican will be determined by which party controls the House following the 2020 elections.
He isn’t the only Republican gunning for the position. Two of his friends on the panel, Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania and Rick Crawford of Arkansas, are also in the race, which will ultimately be decided by the secretive Republican Steering Committee, a powerful group of GOP lawmakers largely loyal to the party leadership.
If chosen, Scott would join four other Georgians currently serving in senior ag positions in Washington.
Former Gov. Sonny Perdue is serving his third year as President Donald Trump’s agriculture secretary. Bishop holds the purse strings over the department as the chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.
David Scott is the second senior-most Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee and could make a play for leadership of the panel next year. And then there’s Zippy Duvall, the Georgia farmer who’s chairman of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Agriculture is a less partisan and more regionalized issue area than others on Capitol Hill, but the fight over work requirements for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, has made the House Agriculture Committee a more divided place as of late.
Scott said lawmakers need “to have an honest discussion based on the facts” when it comes to SNAP. There are areas of the program that have been abused, he said.
“I think that the vast majority of the people on the program are there for the right reasons, should be allowed to stay,” he said. “At the same time, I will tell you that the integrity of the program is extremely important to those people who need it.”
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