The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ignore the chatter. Stuff is getting done. And both parties are helping.

The U.S. Capitol dome in D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa.

The embers of bipartisanship glow in the Senate, fed by wildfires in the West and Seattle steaming at 108 degrees. While Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 Republican, vowed to make Joe Biden a “half-term president,” the Senate Agriculture Committee was busy pushing climate action to the floor.

Which only begins to explain how the Growing Climate Solutions Act passed the Senate on a 92-to-8 vote last week. Biden supports it. Barrasso voted for it. So did Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky). The bill paves the way for a national carbon-credit trading market, something that Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) has pursued for years. The bill, which enjoys bipartisan support in the House, directs the Agriculture Department to establish a framework based in science by which polluters could buy offset credits from farmers and foresters to plant crops that sequester carbon. It was co-sponsored by Sen. Mike Braun, a conservative Republican from Indiana with strong Trump credentials.

The bill is not without controversy. Some environmentalists think it allows corporate greenwashing. The science of carbon sequestration in the soil — planting crops to absorb carbon dioxide — remains unsettled. The Agriculture Department is upping its research into sequestration and will attempt to set credible standards for credits and payment to farmers. Because there is no effective cap on emissions or fee for emitting in the United States, carbon trading remains an experiment in creating conservation incentives for land stewards.

The legislation is a first step of a country mile in acknowledging the climate crisis. Four years ago, Stabenow couldn’t even get a hearing on warming; she had to call it a discussion of “extreme weather.”

What changed? In a word: farmers. They’ve been buffeted by floods, devastating spikes of heat and drought all in the span of a year, for several seasons now. They’re ripping out crops in California. Cattle herds are thinning in the parched Dakotas. Iowa producers are digging deeper wells to slop 23 million hogs as aquifers drop. Drought stalks half the country.

Politicians are also getting word from the financial and mercantile class that money can be skimmed from the margins of the carbon credits. The Chicago traders are on board, along with 175 agribusiness and environmental advocacy groups, with paying farmers for environmental services. The ag players know that climate resiliency has to be built into the food chain. Capital is flowing toward solar and biomass for hydrogen fuel cells, and away from fracked oil or corn ethanol. There is money in renewables.

The Senate Agriculture Committee has always been driven more by regional interests than party allegiance. The South protects cotton and rice, the Upper Midwest corn and ethanol, the Great Plains wheat and water. Now, almost everyone is climbing aboard the climate action wagon because time is short, and they recognize it.

Cargill, the great grain merchant, is working with the Practical Farmers of Iowa on promoting sustainable ag practices. The Farm Bureau on the right and the Farmers Union on the left agree on urgent action. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack tells me the idea is to create all sorts of new revenue streams to help farmers with conservation through executive action and a new five-year Farm Bill, slated for 2023. Agriculture accounts for about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, Stabenow notes, but could become a solution to global warming with the right approach to managing the land.

“We’re in a good place,” Braun said at a session for reporters with Stabenow after the carbon-trading bill passed. “It’s a start.”

They aren’t alone. Two other Midwesterners, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), are contemplating how to break the domination of the four big players in the beef industry and restore fair and open markets from their positions on the Agriculture and Judiciary panels. They’re joined by most senators across the Corn Belt, who are furious with meatpackers for cutting independent cattle producers out of open markets through consolidated power.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) lobbied colleagues at a spring hearing on the carbon-trading bill to fund increased research at land-grant universities that will help prevent the next pandemic jumping from livestock to humans — and to avoid economic catastrophes such as the avian flu that wiped out millions of poultry in 2015. The era of budget-cutting that began with sequestration in 2013 and continued through the Trump term is over.

Everyone already knows Biden has endorsed an infrastructure deal drafted by a bipartisan group of senators. A bipartisan bill to help reshore crucial pharmaceutical and computer component manufacturing from Asia cleared the Senate overwhelmingly. What does this all mean? Things are getting done. Both parties are helping, despite the rhetoric.

Biden campaigned on a belief that bipartisanship has a chance. It does, when you have no choice but to act.

Read more:

Donna F. Edwards: Democrats better get down to making some infrastructure sausage

Perry Bacon Jr.: The pluses and minuses of Bidenism

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Biden wins on substance. So McConnell clings to process.