Washington Week Ahead: Senate looks to move nutrition bill, probe ag mergers

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Sept.  18, 2016 - Senators look to pass a long-stalled child nutrition bill as soon as this week and also will grill top executives of seed and chemical units about the impact of a series of planned mergers on the farm economy.

The bipartisan nutrition bill would reauthorize nutrition programs for five years, would ease rules on sodium and on whole grains but broadly preserves the school meal standards the Obama administration implemented under the expired Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee are seeking unanimous consent to bring up the bill on the floor after they found a funding source to make up a shortfall in the bill after budget estimates came in higher than expected. The extra money is expected to come from fiscal 2016 savings in the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, a source said.

Senate passage could set up the bill to be included in a year-end fiscal 2017 spending package that lawmakers hope to pass in December. Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., was encouraged by progress on the bill last week but wasn't tipping his hand on the end game. “We'll try different things,” he said.

Members of the United Fresh Produce Association were on Capitol Hill last week to lobby for passage of the bill. 

A House version of the bill, which has no chance in the Senate, would allow some states to experiment with setting their own rules for school meals and also would tighten a “community eligibility” provision that allows all students to get free meals in schools located in certain high-poverty areas. The House Education and the Workforce Committee approved the bill on a party-line vote. It has yet to be debated on the House floor.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday will question executives from DuPont, Dow, Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto about their merger plans and the impact they would have on the seed and chemical business. DuPont and Dow are combining and Bayer announced a $66 billion deal last weekend to take over Monsanto. ChemChina is in the process of acquiring Syngenta.

Lets Talk Food

There also is a fourth merger pending between two Canadian-based fertilizer firms, Agrium and PotashCorp. They won't be represented at the hearing.

Another witness at the hearing, Bob Young, chief economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the committee hearing would help ensure that the Justice Department is aware of concerns about the mergers as it reviews them.

Any one of these (mergers) by themselves would be OK. You can certainly understand it. All four of them at once, wow,” Young said.

Both the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission sent letters to Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley indicating they would consult with the Agriculture Department in their reviews of the mergers.

Young is likely to argue that the downturn in the U.S. farm economy and the heavy costs of regulatory approvals and litigation are major drivers behind the mergers. “I don't think it should surprise you that the mergers are going on,” he said.

The state of the farm economy also will be a topic of concern on Wednesday when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testifies before the Senate Agriculture Committee.

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House and Senate leaders, meanwhile, are working on a stopgap funding bill to keep the government operating after the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.

The House also could take up a two-year reauthorization of water projects soon, said Speaker Paul Ryan. The Senate passed a two-year bill last week to authorize $12 billion for 30 Army Corps of Engineers projects in nearly 20 states. The bill also includes a provision exempting some farmers with aboveground fuel storage tanks from EPA requirements to prepare spill control plans.

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

Monday, Sept. 19

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and ONDCP Director Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, meet with parents affected by the opioid epidemic.

Agri-Pulse Editor Sara Wyant moderates a panel discussion at the Agricultural Bioscience International Conference in Fargo with North Dakota Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring and MN Commissioner of Agriculture Dave Frederickson.

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

Tuesday, Sept. 20

Vilsack speaks at the National Civil Rights Conference for Federal Agencies at the Transportation Department and at the Cropp Cooperative Grass Up Event at the U.S. Botanic Gardens.

 

10 a.m. - Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on seed and agrochemical mergers, 226 Dirksen.

Wednesday, Sept. 21

Nationals Association of State Department of Agriculture annual meeting, through Saturday, Lincoln, Neb.

Organic Trade Association's Organic at Expo East, through Thursday, Baltimore.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman Froman will participate in the U.S.-Africa Business Forum.

10 a.m. - Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on the farm economy with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, 328A Russell.

Noon - CFTC Commissioner Christopher speaks at the American Enterprise Institute, 1789 Massachusetts Ave. NW

2:30 p.m. - Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee hearing on proposed revisions to the Fish and Wildlife Service mitigation policy, 406 Dirksen.

Thursday, Sept. 22

Vilsack travels to Ohio to visit Rural Development investments and announce Community Facilities projects at Wilmington College, Wilmington.

 

Acting Deputy Secretary Michael Scuse speaks at the USDA Land Tenure and the Next Generation of Agriculture Fall Forum at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Froman hosts African trade ministers for a trade and labor ministerial roundtable.

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

9:20 a.m. - American Enterprise Institute forum, "Protectionism and the future of US trade policy,” with Froman and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., 1789 Massachusetts Ave. NW.

10 a.m. - House Agriculture subcommittee hearing, “Rehabilitation of the Chesapeake Bay: Healing the Bay the Voluntary Way,” 1300 Longworth.

Noon - Environmental Law Institute forum, “Fighting Food Waste: Reduction and Donation,” 1730 M St. NW.

5 p.m. - Center for Strategic and International Studies forum, “Water for Food Security, A Vital Resource to Feed the Planet,” 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW.

Friday,  Sept. 23

Vilsack speaks on trade and the importance of Trans-Pacific Partnership at the NASDA meeting. Scuse participates in a panel discussion on TPP and international trade.

 

9 a.m. - USDA releases monthly Food Price Outlook.

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