Expected Federal Farm Policy Activity in 2015
Feb 11, 2015
Starting last month, the Republican Party assumed control of both the House and Senate for the first time since 2006. Unlike the last time, GOP Congressional power will be pitted against a Democratic president in the White House, so potential agricultural policy changes will have to come through some sort of bipartisan process, or they likely won’t become law.
Both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have new leadership--in the House, Rep. Mike Conaway (R, TX) has taken over as chair from Rep. Frank Lucas (R, OK), who was term-limited under House GOP conference rules. Rep. Collin Peterson (D, MN) continues as ranking member for the Committee. In the Senate, Senator Pat Roberts (R, KS) has taken over as Committee chair, while Senator Debbie Stabenow (D, MI) has moved to the ranking member slot.
Farm groups and other interested stakeholders have traditionally focused their policy attention on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, where farm bills are crafted. However, in part because of the need for the U.S. agricultural sector to look outside its traditional outlets to find buyers for its products, such as foreign countries and the production of renewable fuels, many of the federal policies that affect these efforts fall under the jurisdiction of other Committees in Congress. Of the nine potential pieces of legislation for 2015 affecting agriculture described below, only two would be addressed solely within the Agriculture Committees.
Child Nutrition Act-There is one piece of agricultural policy legislation which must be addressed in 2015, the re-authorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which provides the structural and funding authority for the school meals programs, WIC, and related programs. The work on this bill will be done by the Agriculture Committee in the Senate but by the Education and Workforce Committee in the House rather than the House Agriculture Committee. Despite the fact that the last such bill, the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, passed with a strong bipartisan vote, many of the nutritional guidelines it created are now opposed by many elected Republicans as overly intrusive.
GMO labeling-Congress may take up a GMO labeling bill that would establish national standards as to how to label GMO content on food packages, in an effort to forestall disparate state laws in this area. This legislation would be handled by the House and Senate Agriculture Committees.
SNAP-The new House Ag Committee chairman has committed to undertaking a thorough review of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as one of his top priorities in the new Congress, with an eye toward reducing spending on the program by improving its efficiency. However, the new Senate Ag Committee chair has also said publicly that he does not intend to re-open the 2014 farm bill, so it is not clear how far the House efforts can actually go.
COOL legislation-In the FY15 CRomnibus bill, Congress instructed USDA to devise a proposal to administratively fix livestock Country of Origin (COOL) rules so it can be implemented in a way consistent with WTO rules, but Secretary Vilsack has indicated that he has very little leeway under current law. Rules promulgated under the existing legislation have been successfully challenged twice under the WTO dispute settlement process by Mexico and Canada. If the U.S. appeal filed In late November fails, the U.S. Government may have to change (or withdraw) the rules legislatively or face retaliation.
Trade Promotion Authority-As the Obama administration makes progress in negotiating two major Free Trade Agreements, with Pacific Rim countries (TPP) and with the European Union (TTIP), the President is expected to press Congress to grant him Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) that would enable final deals to be considered by Congress without allowing members to amend the terms. This area is one in which there is the possibility of agreement between the President and Congressional GOP leadership, but will face opposition from Tea Party-affiliated Republican members, who don't want to concede anything to President Obama, and liberal Democrats, who believe that FTA's invariably lead to U.S. job losses. Most U.S. farm groups support these two FTA's as they anticipate increased exports would result. This legislation, and any bills needed to enact the two FTA’s, would be handled by the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means Committees.
RFS legislation-After the EPA's effort to reduce the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) administratively for 2014 stalled, there could be an effort to repeal or modify the RFS legislatively during the 114th Congress-such bills have already been introduced. This action would face strong opposition from Midwest members from both parties. This legislation would be handled by the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Clean Water Act rulemaking--The CRomnibus bill required EPA to withdraw its interpretative rule on agricultural activities associated with its rulemaking process on the Clean Water Act, but at this point, EPA plans to proceed with the underlying rule itself. The public comment period closed in November. The new Congress may try to halt or overturn the new rule by using the provisions of the Congressional Review Act, but would have to do so over the expected veto of the President. If they intend to use the FY16 Ag Appropriations bill as a vehicle for such a policy rider, which the President is less likely to veto, the new rule could take effect before the next fiscal year begins.
Ag Immigration reform--While a comprehensive immigration deal seems unlikely given the adverse Republican reaction to the President's Executive Actions in November, there is some possibility that the House and Senate could take up the piecemeal approach originally proffered by Speaker Boehner in 2013. A stand-alone bill addressing farm immigration issues could be considered on this basis. This legislation would be handled primarily by the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.