Before starting high-stakes talks on the nation’s next farm bill, House Democrats are facing tensions in their own ranks about whether their Agriculture Committee chair is ready for the challenge.
Rep. David Scott, 76, is a member long respected by both parties — and a historic figure as the first Black lawmaker to lead the agriculture panel. But people close to the Georgia Democrat, known for his low-key manner, acknowledge he’s noticeably slowed in the last few years, citing his increasingly halting speech and trouble at times focusing on a topic.
House Democrats in December 2020 voted for Scott to lead the panel, but some of his decisions since then have frustrated an array of his colleagues. POLITICO spoke with 28 lawmakers, congressional aides and other government officials for this article. Ten lawmakers who detailed concerns about Scott spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly about the sensitive situation.
Some House Democrats say Scott has been unable to maintain control of routine committee hearings to keep Republicans from running roughshod over Democrats on key priorities such as climate-related agriculture programs and their now-stalled $1.7 trillion social spending bill.
A bill markup in September veered so far out of order that several House Democrats took the rare step of raising their worries with House leadership offices in an attempt to replace Scott as chair before he opens talks for the next farm bill in the coming weeks, according to seven House members familiar with the situation.
In interviews or via a spokesperson, the top three House Democrats — Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — each said the concerns weren’t raised to them and they expressed confidence in Scott, giving no ground to fears about Scott’s capabilities or the talk of replacing him.
Scott in a phone interview this week dismissed questions about his health as the actions of “a bunch of wannabe chairmen” who are taking advantage of his physical health challenges in order to stage a mutiny.
“You have people there that want to be chairman and they see you with a cane to help you with your mobility,” said Scott, adding that he recently had leg surgery. “People shouldn't hold the fact that you're having a little difficulty with your leg to deny you an opportunity.”
Scott said he has no plans to retire from Congress.
But more than a dozen lawmakers and aides interviewed by POLITICO detailed growing frustrations about some of his decisions while leading the committee of 27 Democrats and 24 Republicans. They also have pointed to instances of his inability to finish his thoughts or remember previous conversations.
“I have the utmost respect for Chairman Scott,” said a Democrat on the committee. “But he could be doing a better job.” The person added: “I don’t necessarily know if it’s his health or what, but something is wrong.”
This lawmaker described speaking with Scott last November about details of a bill in a conversation where Scott appeared attentive and engaged. A few days later, the lawmaker was shocked by how much Scott struggled to carry on a conversation about the same bill. He seemed to lose focus, was unable to find the words to complete his thoughts at times and didn’t seem to remember ever discussing the legislation before, this lawmaker said. Scott’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the incident.
One House Democrat recently tried to intervene with Scott directly, according to five of the House Democrats interviewed for this story. They said this member, whom fellow lawmakers wouldn’t name, spoke with Scott about specific questions about his health to try to persuade him to cede the gavel ahead of the farm bill talks.
Scott was not receptive to the message, according to one of the five Democrats, who was told about the meeting by the lawmaker who met with Scott. Scott, in a phone 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 Caucuses, said subcommittee chairs would likely take on more of the work negotiating pieces of the farm bill with Scott in charge.
”It's not really his physical health. He struggles getting around,” said another Democrat on the agriculture panel. “But there are real questions about whether he's with it.”
In a press availability last July, Scott struggled to convey basic facts about a bill just advanced by the committee. He claimed, unprompted, that the bill had 42 co-sponsors, when in reality it didn’t have any.
He made several other mistakes before an aide stepped in and ended the event. Scott hasn’t answered reporters’ questions in a similar, scheduled media availability since. Aides cite his busy schedule as one reason.
Scott hasn’t disclosed any serious health issues. His office says Congress’ attending physician has deemed him as healthy.
“I’m as strong and vibrant as a roaring lion,” he said in the phone interview. “These are people that want this position.”
Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) is one of the members who has privately raised concerns about Scott with colleagues, according to two people familiar with the conversations. Costa ran against Scott for the Agriculture Committee’s top spot and would be among those next in line to take over.
In a statement to POLITICO, Costa didn’t dispute that he had raised questions about the chair with other members, but said he “respect[s] the hard work that Chairman Scott is doing in the committee.”
“It’s important that Democratic members work together with the chairman as we have traditionally on issues impacting America’s heartland,” Costa added. “He has my support.”
Worries about Scott’s ability to lead the committee in the grueling months ahead are such an open secret that people in other parts of the federal government — including two Department of Agriculture officials and three senior Senate aides — say they have discussed similar concerns in their offices.
“It is alarming,” said one USDA staffer who has known Scott for more than a decade.
In a statement, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he has “full faith and confidence” in Scott’s ability to lead the committee.
“Since I returned to office, Scott has been a strong partner in moving forward our aggressive agenda to support our farmers, ranchers and producers, fight food and nutrition insecurity, combat climate change and deliver results for the American people on a range of other important issues,” Vilsack said. “I look forward to continuing to work with him well into the future.”
As chair of the House Agriculture Committee, Scott is set to lead this year’s negotiations over hundreds of billions of dollars in farm aid, nutrition assistance and related programs. The farm bill, which next expires in 2023, has sweeping ramifications for every aspect of American agriculture and rural life. The upcoming reauthorization process is particularly critical for Democrats, who hope to shape the early talks before the House potentially flips to the GOP in November.
If Republicans take control of the committee, Scott would still have a prominent role as ranking member.
The worry is that Republicans and the farm industry might push Democrats to the sidelines during the talks.
“I think [House leaders] feel that there needs to be a change based on his capacity, that there will be a change before the farm bill. It's too big,” said one Democrat on the committee.
But House leaders are showing no signs that they plan to intervene ahead of the farm bill talks.
“The Speaker has confidence in Chairman Scott’s leadership,” Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, said in a statement. “No such concerns have been raised by Members with our office.”
Hoyer and Clyburn, the No. 2 and No. 3 House Democrats, both said in brief interviews that they didn’t know about the situation and weren’t aware of any efforts to replace Scott as chair.
“I haven't heard anything of that nature,” Hoyer said. “He has a mobility problem, but he doesn't have a thinking problem. That's for sure. I’ve talked to him a lot.”
“I have full faith and confidence in David Scott,” said Clyburn in a follow-up phone call.
Some House Democrats pushed back against questions over Scott’s leadership, especially on his heavy reliance on aides in committee hearings and criticisms of his lack of control over several contentious committee meetings.
“Even chairing a subcommittee, you often need help from experienced staff and the parliamentarian,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said. “But I have found him to be very good at running the committee hearings.”
Making any move against Scott, a well-liked Congressional Black Caucus member, would cause significant problems for House leaders who themselves are all octogenarians. Scott, a Blue Dog Democrat from Georgia, boasts sterling bipartisan credentials.
In the interview, Scott said he was “very proud” to be the committee’s first Black chair. He touted the committee’s accomplishments thus far under his control, including steps to expand funding for climate programs, rural broadband, and 1890 African American land-grant colleges and universities.
“I was the one that provided that leadership,” Scott said.
Asked if House leaders have raised these matters directly to him or his staff, Scott replied, “I haven't heard anything except everybody saying, ‘David, you're doing a great job.’”
Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said her group “has full confidence in the chairman and look[s] forward to his continued leadership.”
Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.), vice chair of the Agriculture Committee and its most senior Black member after Scott, said “I don’t know what you’re talking about” when asked about internal worries about his readiness.
“He has my fullest support and confidence and I look forward to my continued work with him on the committee,” said Rep. Sanford Bishop, a fellow Georgia Democrat.
A former staffer on the House Agriculture Committee acknowledged some of the concerns about Scott, but added they weren’t uncommon for a senior lawmaker.
“We’ve seen this happen with other members, people don’t necessarily talk about it,” the former staffer said.
The person questioned why lawmakers were challenging Scott’s ability to lead the committee when several former committee chairs struggled with similar concerns — noting that they were white and didn’t face the same scrutiny.
Scott last fall announced plans to run for reelection and reiterated this week that he’s not retiring. But some Democrats interviewed speculated that he could still change course and leave Congress, following more than two dozen other caucus members who’ve opted to leave the House ahead of a likely GOP takeover this fall.