Washington Week Ahead: Budget talks launch; assurances sought on dietary guidelines

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Oct. 4, 2015 - Amid a power struggle in the House Republican caucus, the White House has started negotiations with congressional leaders on a sweeping budget deal that will be critical to GOP hopes to roll back some of President Obama's regulatory agenda.

The budget talks have taken on increased urgency because of House Speaker John Boehner's announcement that he'll step down at the end of this month. House Republicans are scheduled to vote on a new leadership slate this Thursday.

Congressional leaders want to nail down a deal on top-line numbers for domestic and defense spending while Boehner is still in office, and to give House and Senate appropriators time to work out the details of an omnibus spending bill for the rest of 2016.

“We're urging the leadership to get this done as quickly as possible,” said Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, referring to the top-line numbers.

“My hope and prayer is that they get this done before Boehner leaves, so we have consistent Republican House leadership we're dealing with.”

Meanwhile, the House Agriculture Committee this week will demand assurances from the Obama administration that the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans won't take environmental factors into account.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, whose department has the lead role in writing the 2015 version of the guidelines will testify Wednesday before the House Agriculture Committee along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Together we can feed the Bees"

“We'd like to have rock-solid assurance that nutrition science would carry the day,” said the committee's chairman, Mike Conaway, R-Texas. “We want nutrition science to carry the day and not some misguided sustainability thing that most of us disagree with.”

As for the budget negotiations, Democrats are demanding more money for domestic spending, while Republicans want to increase the defense budget and to use the omnibus bill to block a series of regulations, including the administration's “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rule re-defining the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.

The administration's greenhouse gas limits and other regulations also could be the target of Republicans in the negotiations. “The question is, What will the traffic bear?…. What can we get done?” said Senate GOP Conference Chairman John Thune, R-S.D.

Mikulski said Democrats will resist any “poison pill” policy riders but acknowledged regulatory issues would be under discussion. “We want things, they want things,” she said.

The stopgap spending bill that Congress passed to prevent the government from shutting down when the fiscal year started this past Thursday expires on Dec. 11.

Obama used his weekly radio address to tell lawmakers he wouldn't sign another short-term spending bill, although he would be hard-pressed to force a government shutdown if the talks are still ongoing.

“Congress should do its job, stop kicking the can down the road, and pass a serious budget rather than flirt with another shutdown, he said. “A serious budget is one that keeps America strong through our military, our law enforcement; that keeps America generous through caring for our veterans and our seniors; that keeps America competitive by educating our kids and our workers.”

Dietary Guidelines

The dietary guidelines, which are used to set standards for federal nutrition program and advise doctors and other health care professionals, are revised every five years based on recommendations of a scientific advisory committee. This time, the advisers recommended considering the environmental impact of producing various foods, and that would have the result of advising consumers to reduce meat consumption.

Vilsack has suggested in committee testimony that the guidelines would steer clear of that recommendation, or as he told lawmakers, the agencies would “color within the lines.”

Conaway indicated that in addition to wanting assurances from Burwell, the panel may want to look into ways to restrict the development of the 2020 guidelines. The dietary advice should “be as broadly useful to as many people as possible,” he said.

GMO Labeling, California Drought

Meanwhile, farmers, food companies and the biotech industry are looking this week to build support in the Senate for legislation to preempt state GMO labeling laws. The House passed a bill in July, but the legislation has never been introduced in the Senate for lack of a Democratic co-sponsor.

Representatives of farm and industry groups are flying in to visit senators and their aides on Wednesday, ahead of the weeklong Columbus Day recess and an Oct. 21 hearing by the Senate Agriculture Committee. Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said the hearing will focus on the safety of biotechnology, not the labeling issue.


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The first state labeling law is set to take effect in Vermont next summer, but Democrats have been reluctant to put their names on a bill due to the concerns of constituents about biotech products, lobbyists say.

“We're trying to set the predicate, which is an obvious predicate, that the food that Americans eat is the best quality food in the history of producing food,” Roberts said. “That would naturally lead to (doing) something about the Vermont situation.”  

The California drought will get some attention on Capitol Hill this week, too. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on a pair of dueling bills, one ( S 1894) introduced by the state's Democratic senators, and the other on House-passed bill (HR 2898) that would accelerate construction of new reservoirs and force federal agencies to pump more water from the delta formed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

The White House has threatened to veto the House bill.

Although House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is the frontrunner to replace Boehner as House speaker, the president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, Paul Wenger, told Agri-Pulse he's not optimistic about drought legislation during this Congress, given Senate Democratic resistance to the House measure. “I don't hold a lot of hope out between now and the election.”

Here's a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:

Monday, Oct. 5

4 p.m. - Deputy Agriculture Secretary Krysta Harden and NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman will sign an interagency agreement and plant lettuce seeds in USDA People's Garden that are sister plants to those grown on the International Space Station.

4 p.m. - USDA releases weekly Crop Progress report.

Tuesday, Oct. 6

3 p.m. - USDA releases monthly report on total value of U.S. agricultural trade and trade balance.

Wednesday, Oct. 7

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack presents an award to USDA researcher Hyun Lillehoj at a Partnership for Public Service to America medals ceremony. She is being honored for her research on reducing the use of antibiotics in poultry.

9 a.m. - House Agriculture Committee hearing on development of the 2015 dietary guidelines, with Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Burwell, 1300 Longworth.

10 a.m. - House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on food aid reform, 2172 Rayburn.

10 a.m. - House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee hearing on the EPA's new ozone standard, 2318 Rayburn.

10 a.m. - Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on barriers to wireless broadband deployment, 253 Russell.

2 p.m. - House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on food security and nutrition programs in Africa, 2200 Rayburn.

2 p.m. - House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing on policy regarding invasive species, 2154 Rayburn.

3 p.m. - USDA releases U.S. Agricultural Trade Data Update.

Thursday, Oct. 8

House Republican leadership elections.

Deputy USDA Secretary Harden holds media conference call to announce a USDA commitment to beginning farmer programs.

8:30 a.m. - USDA releases Weekly Export Sales.

9 a.m. - Farm Foundation forum on crop insurance and conservation practices, National Press Club.

9:30 a.m. - Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing on California drought relief bills, 366 Dirksen.

10 a.m. - House Agriculture subcommittee hearing on the 2015 fire season, 1300 Longworth.

Friday, Oct. 9

Noon - USDA releases monthly Crop Production report and World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates.

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