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Pennsylvania congressman sees opportunities to close urban-rural divide

Daniel Moore
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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Washington – For Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., the COVID-19 pandemic has showed the value – and vulnerability – of regions such as Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District: a 14-county expanse of rural farmland, forests and recreation areas dotted with a major land grant university, energy production and manufacturing.

Thompson, entering his seventh term in Congress as the longest-serving Republican lawmaker from Pennsylvania, said he recognizes the challenges facing his swath of north-central Pennsylvania.

He’s put in a dozen years on the powerful House Agriculture Committee, which has jurisdiction over not only farm policy but a wide array of rural programs on food assistance, housing, utilities and economic development. It assembles the sprawling farm bill, one of the biggest and most contentious pieces of legislation on Capitol Hill when it comes up for a vote every five years.

In January, Thompson, 61, will ascend to the top Republican seat on the powerful panel, giving him the chance to wield greater influence to shape the U.S. food system and narrow gaps between urban and rural parts of the state and country.

“Without a robust rural economy and a strong agriculture program in this country, people all over America, including in cities, are going to wake up cold, in the dark, and hungry,” Thompson said, laying out his agenda in broad strokes in a recent interview.

Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa.

“It’s a tremendous amount of responsibility and opportunity,” Thompson said. The agriculture committee “probably impacts people’s lives on a daily basis more than any other committee in Congress.”

Thompson, who was first elected in 2008 after 28 years as a therapist and licensed nursing home administrator, said he wants to target infrastructure development as a way to stem population decline in rural areas and attract business.

He pointed to his experience on the panel’s subcommittees, and on the House Education and Labor Committee, to push for investments in telemedicine, broadband expansion and remote learning.

In 2011, he introduced legislation, eventually signed into law by President Barack Obama, that expanded telemedicine services among active duty military service members. In 2017, he sponsored another bill that expanded telemedicine throughout the Veterans Affairs health care system.

To expand these services in broader rural areas, he has said, there must be access to high-speed internet but also aid that makes it affordable to providers and consumers. In June, he introduced a measure to codify Medicare reimbursement for community health centers and rural health clinics to provide telemedicine services – making permanent some of a temporary benefit enacted during the pandemic.

“The issue does come down to connectivity, obviously, but it comes to other issues, such as reimbursement,” he said in September. “If you’re able to access the right providers, you’re getting high-quality care no matter where you live.”

The success of rural areas depends on helping farmers navigate what has been a turbulent stretch. The virus has disrupted the broader food supply chain, with restaurants shutting down and food pantries overwhelmed with demand from hungry families, he said.

Even before the pandemic, Pennsylvania farmers struggled with low prices caused in part by the Trump administration’s trade war with China, whose government effectively blocked U.S. soybean shipments for about 18 months in retaliation.

The dairy industry, which makes up roughly a third of Pennsylvania’s farm sales, has been awash in milk for years, mostly due to overproduction and consumers flocking to alternative nondairy milks.

The agriculture committee has purview over the complex system of farm subsidies and aid, including a program that provides payments to dairies when their margins fall below a certain level.

When COVID-19 hit, the government set up the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which has provided more than $19 billion to farmers through direct payments and through purchasing and distribution of produce, dairy and meat to places that need it most.

Thompson said the committee should hold hearings and listening sessions on ways to make the food system more resilient, he said. Lessons learned from the pandemic should be part of the next farm bill, scheduled to come up in 2023.

Meeting with farmers about the pandemic program so far, he said, “the feedback I’ve gotten has been very, very positive.”

A small-government Republican, Thompson has said he knows farmers’ top goal is to get their product to a buyer – not government checks. In the longer term, he said, the government should help farmers invest in their business, like aid to help dairy farmers, for example, buy processing equipment that can produce more lucrative cheese.

He praised President Donald Trump’s partial trade deal with China, signed in January, which put a hold on the trade war and directed China to accelerate purchases of American farm goods, among other U.S. exports. (The pandemic put a damper on those lofty goals, and China has fallen behind its commitments this year.)

He said he would continue to advocate for trade deals with the United Kingdom, and across Europe and Asia. “They have far more stomachs they need to fill,” he said.

He said he intends on meeting the climate change challenge by maintaining forests and encouraging farmers to use precision agriculture to conserve resources and maintain healthy soil. Overseeing those practices, the agriculture committee is “responsible for the largest carbon sinks in the world,” he said, referring to their ability to store carbon currently in the atmosphere.

Thompson, whose district has the most abandoned mine land in the country, has led the charge to extend the federal program that funds cleanup projects, fighting a dueling proposal from Wyoming lawmakers to cut the program by 35%.

But he has questioned the need for more regulations on the energy industry, suggesting during a webinar in June that unfavorable news coverage and environmental groups opposing natural gas had been covertly fueled by Russians bent on disrupting America’s energy supply. He has criticized Democrats’ climate change proposals as unrealistic and economically destructive.

Thompson, who tends to avoid wading into partisan disputes, led Pennsylvania’s Republican delegation last month in challenging the state’s administration of the election, repeating Trump’s baseless accusations of widespread voter fraud.

Thompson, in the interview, said there “may have been abuses” and that voter fraud may have occurred “in small pieces, perhaps, small parcels,” but “the transition is preceding” to allow President-elect Joe Biden to take office next month.

He emphasized he wants to move forward after “the politics of 2020” sidelined important measures. He called the committee’s new chair, Rep. David Scott, a Georgia Democrat representing the Atlanta suburbs, “a gentleman and a statesman, and I’m looking forward to our work together.”

The former chair, Rep. Collin Peterson, lost his reelection bid after 30 years representing rural western Minnesota. Peterson was among 13 Democrats whose seats were flipped, narrowing their House majority.

“In some sense, that will put us in a position where the majority party will be motivated to work with us,” Thompson said. “We tend to be bipartisan.”

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