Washington Week Ahead: COOL, GMO labeling, WOTUS rule hang in balance

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Dec. 13, 2015 - The fate of the country-of-origin labeling law for meat is hanging on a massive spending bill that could be released on Monday, and the food industry has been clinging to hopes that a measure preempting state GMO labeling laws also could be included.

Also up in the air heading into the final negotiations was the Obama administration's new “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rule that re-defines the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.

The government is operating under a stopgap bill that gives lawmakers until Wednesday to pass a   fiscal 2016 omnibus spending measure.

Congressional leaders also went into the weekend negotiating on a sweeping tax package that could make permanent the expanded Section 179 expensing allowance that is widely used in agriculture. Should talks on the tax package fail, the Section 179 provision and dozens of other expired tax benefits are likely to be extended only through next year.

Lets Talk Food

With the negotiations still going, House Speaker Paul Ryan had Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in for dinner Friday evening for two hours. An aide said it was more “social than business.”

Lawmakers appear poised to repeal at least parts of the country-of-origin labeling law (COOL) to prevent Canada and Mexico from imposing $1.01 billion in retaliatory tariffs that the World Trade Organization authorized Dec. 7.

The House this summer voted to kill the COOL requirements for beef, pork and poultry. But heading into the final days of the negotiations the law's supporters were working to limit the repeal to labeling for whole cuts of beef and pork, leaving in place COOL requirements for ground meat and poultry. The WTO ruled that the labeling regulations for whole cuts of beef and pork violated international trade rules.

“It will certainly be repeal of the part that's affected by WTO, and it may be more,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said late last week.

Stabenow, the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has been at the center of negotiations on both COOL and biotech labeling.

Food manufacturers want Congress to pass legislation that would permanently bar states from requiring the labeling of biotech foods and set standards for Internet and smartphone disclosure of GMO ingredients.

That effort foundered in the Senate this fall, and the industry has turned to trying to insert a two-year preemption measure into the omnibus. Even that temporary measure has run into objections of key senators, most importantly Jeff Merkley, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

Stabenow said last week that the labeling issue would be a top priority when Congress returns in January. The industry will only lose leverage as the July effective date for Vermont's labeling law approaches, but barring last-minute intervention by the White House and Democratic leaders, the issue will be left in limbo heading into the new year.

"If they don't do it here (in the omnibus), I don't see how it gets done,” said Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. He told Agri-Pulse the industry asked him to intervene with Stabenow, but he declined, suggesting that would be futile. If the provision doesn't pass, “it would be on her,” Peterson said.

He said there was still a “chance” a preemption measure could make it into the omnibus. Stabenow has said her hands are tied because of the opposition from Merkley and other colleagues.

The White House, meanwhile, has been strongly against including a provision to block implementation of the WOTUS rule, according to Republican lawmakers. The rule is currently on hold pending court challenges but opponents say it's critical for Congress to act as well. The policy rider would have to be renewed each year, but it would ensure the rule can't be enforced even if the court stay is lifted.

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House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, told Agri-Pulse on Friday that the WOTUS rider “was not absolutely necessary,” given the court stay and the possibility of other legislative actions.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, however, views the WOTUS rider as critical, said Don Parish, the organization's senior director for regulatory relations. “The court stay as it stands right now is very temporary.”

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

Monday, Dec. 14

The U.S. Trade Representative's chief agricultural negotiator, Darci Vetter, is in Nairobi, Kenya, through Saturday for the WTO Doha Round of negotiations.

All day - USDA's Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture (AC21) meeting, 1331 F St. NW.

3 p.m. - USDA releases Cost of Production forecasts.

Tuesday, Dec. 15

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman travels to Nairobi for the Doha talks.

All day - USDA's Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture (AC21) meeting, 1331 F St. NW. 

8:30 p.m. - Republican presidential debate on CNN, in Las Vegas. Undercard debate at 6 p.m.

Wednesday, Dec. 16

Thursday, Dec. 17

Friday, Dec. 18

#30

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