Lawmakers Raise Health Concerns As They Quietly Seek To Replace House Speaker

Before launching high-stakes talks on the nation’s next farm bill, House Democrats are facing tensions in their ranks over whether their agriculture committee chair is up to the challenge.

Rep. David Scott, 76, long respected by both parties and also a historic figure as the first black MP to chair the agriculture commission. But people close to the Georgia Democrat known for his low-profile demeanor admit that he has slowed down noticeably in the past few years, citing his increasingly erratic speech and issues focused at times on the topic.

House Democrats voted for Scott in December 2020 to lead the committee, but some of his decisions have since disappointed many of his colleagues. POLITICO spoke with 28 legislators, congressional aides, and other government officials for this article. Ten lawmakers who have detailed concerns about Scott spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the delicate situation.

Some House Democrats say Scott failed to maintain control over routine committee hearings to keep Republicans from roughing up Democrats on key priorities such as climate-related farm programs and their now stalled 1 .7 trillion dollars.

The mark-up on the bill in September was so out of line that several House Democrats took the rare step of raising their fears of House leadership offices in an effort to replace Scott as chairman before he begins negotiations on the next farm bill in the coming weeks. up to seven Members of the Chamber are familiar with the situation.

In an interview or through a spokesperson, three leading Democrats in the House of Representatives – Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn (DS.C.) – said they had no concerns, and expressed confidence to Scott without giving grounds for concern. about Scott’s abilities or talk of replacing him.

Scott dismissed questions about his health in a phone interview this week, calling them the actions of “a bunch of copycat chairmen” who are taking advantage of his physical health issues to mutiny.

“You have people who want to be chairman and they see you with a cane to help you get around,” Scott said, adding that he recently had surgery on his leg. “People shouldn’t assume that you have a little problem with your foot to deprive you of an opportunity.”

Scott said he has no plans to leave Congress.

But more than a dozen lawmakers and aides polled by POLITICO spoke of growing frustration with some of his decisions while chairing a committee of 27 Democrats and 24 Republicans. They also pointed to instances of his inability to complete his thoughts or recall previous conversations.

“I have the utmost respect for Chairman Scott,” a Democrat on the committee said. But he could do better. The person added: “I don’t necessarily know if it’s health related or anything else, but something is wrong.”

This legislator described a conversation with Scott last November about the details of the bill in a conversation in which Scott seemed attentive and interested. A few days later, the legislator was appalled by how hard Scott struggled to keep the bill going. According to the MP, he seemed to lose concentration, at times could not find the words to finish his thoughts, and did not seem to remember ever discussing the law before. Scott’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the incident.

A House Democrat recently tried to directly intervene in Scott’s affairs, according to five Democrats interviewed for this article. They said the member, who was not named by fellow lawmakers, spoke to Scott about specific issues about his health to try and convince him to step aside the hammer ahead of farm bill negotiations.

Scott didn’t take the message, according to one of the five Democrats who was told about the meeting by a legislator who met with Scott. Scott, in a telephone interview, denied knowing anything about such a meeting. Scott’s office says it didn’t happen.

Several Democrats, including members of the Black and Hispanic groups, said subcommittee chairs would likely take on most of the work of negotiating parts of the farm bill with Scott at the helm.

“It’s not really his physical health. He has difficulty walking,” said another Democrat from the agriculture group. “But there are real questions about whether he is with him.”

In the press last July, Scott struggled to convey the basic facts about the bill the committee had just put forward. He stated without prompting that the bill had 42 co-sponsors, when in fact there were none. He made a few more mistakes before an assistant intervened and ended the event. Since then, Scott has not responded to questions from reporters in a similar scheduled media access. Aides cite his busy schedule as one of the reasons.

Scott has not reported any major health issues. His office says he is deemed healthy by the congressional attending physician.

“I am as strong and energetic as a roaring lion,” he said in a telephone interview. “These are the people who want the position.”

Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA) is one of the members who privately raised concerns about Scott to colleagues, according to two people familiar with the conversations. Costa was vying with Scott for first place on the Agriculture Committee and will be one of the next in line to take his place.

In a statement to POLITICO, Costa did not dispute asking questions about the seat to other members, but said he “respects[s] the hard work that Chairman Scott does on the committee.”

“It’s important that members of the Democratic Party work with the chairman, as we traditionally do, on issues that touch the heart of America,” Costa added. “He has my support.”

Worries about Scott’s ability to chair the committee in the grueling months ahead are such a well-known secret that people in other parts of the federal government, including two USDA officials and three senior Senate aides, say they have discussed similar concerns in their offices.

“This is worrisome,” said a USDA official who has known Scott for more than a decade.

In a statement, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he had “total faith and confidence” in Scott’s ability to chair the committee.

“Since I returned to the office, Scott has been a strong partner in advancing our aggressive program to support our farmers, ranchers, and producers, fight food insecurity, fight climate change, and deliver results for the American people on a number of other important issues. questions. problems,” Vilsack said. “I look forward to continuing to work with him in the future.”

As chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Scott will lead negotiations this year for hundreds of billions of dollars in farm assistance, nutrition assistance and related programs. The farm bill, which expires in 2023, has broad implications for every aspect of American agriculture and rural life. The upcoming reauthorization process is especially important for Democrats, who are hoping to formulate first negotiations before the House of Representatives potentially flips over to the Republican Party in November.

If the Republicans take control of the committee, Scott will still play a prominent role as a senior member. The concern is that Republicans and farmers may marginalize Democrats during negotiations.

“I think [House leaders] feels that there should be changes based on his ability, that changes will be made before the farm is billed. It’s too much,” said one Democrat on the committee.

But House leaders show no signs that they plan to intervene ahead of farm bill negotiations.

“The Speaker has confidence in Chairman Scott’s leadership,” Pelosi Deputy Chief of Staff Drew Hammill said in a statement. “The members of our office did not express such concerns.”

Hoyer and Clyburn, Democrats No. 2 and No. 3 in the House of Representatives, both said in brief interviews that they were unaware of the situation and were unaware of any attempt to replace Scott as chairman.

“I haven’t heard anything like that,” Hoyer said. “He has problems with mobility, but no problems with thinking. That’s for sure. I talked to him a lot.”

“I have complete confidence in David Scott,” Clyburn said in a subsequent phone call.

Some Democrats in the House of Representatives opposed questions about Scott’s leadership, especially with his heavy reliance on aides in committee hearings and criticism of his lack of control over several contentious committee meetings.

“Even as chair of a subcommittee, you often need the help of experienced staff and an MP,” said Rep. Ro Hanna (R-Calif.). “But I’ve found that he handles committee hearings very well.”

Any move against Scott, a popular member of the Black Congress, would cause serious problems for the leaders of the House of Representatives, who are themselves octogenarians. Scott, a Georgia Blue Dog Democrat, boasts an impeccable track record as a bipartisan leader.

In an interview, Scott said he was “very proud” to be the committee’s first black chairman. He touted the committee’s accomplishments hitherto under its control, including moves to increase funding for climate programs, rural broadband, and 1,890 land-granted African-American colleges and universities.

“I was the one who provided that leadership,” Scott said.

Asked if House leaders spoke directly to him or his staff, Scott replied, “I didn’t hear anything other than everyone saying, ‘David, you’re doing great.’

Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said her group “totally trusts the chairman and looks[s] forward to his continued leadership.”

Rep. Alma Adams (DN.C.), Vice Chair of the Agriculture Committee and its highest-ranking black member since Scott, said “I don’t know what you’re talking about” when asked about domestic concerns about his readiness .

“He has my full support and confidence, and I look forward to continuing to serve on the committee with him,” said Rep. Sanford Bishop, a member of the Georgia Democratic Party.

The former House Agriculture Committee official acknowledged some concerns about Scott, but added that they were not uncommon for a senior MP.

“We’ve seen it happen to other members, people don’t necessarily talk about it,” the former employee said.

The person asked why lawmakers challenged Scott’s ability to chair the committee when several former committee chairs struggled with similar issues, noting that they were white and were not subject to the same scrutiny.

Last fall, Scott announced plans to run for a second term and reiterated this week that he is not retiring. But some Democrats polled suggested he could still change course and leave Congress, following more than two dozen other caucus members who have decided to leave the House ahead of a likely takeover by the GOP this fall.

Jimena Bustillo and Helena Bottemiller Evic contributed to this report.

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