Washington Week Ahead: USDA gets scrutiny as lame duck winds down

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 27, 2016 - Lawmakers return this week to their lame duck session while President-elect Donald Trump is expected to resume naming members of his incoming administration.

Trump has yet to announce any of his key nominees for agriculture, including Agriculture and Interior secretaries and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Reince Priebus, Trump's future White House chief of staff, said on Fox News Sunday that the president-elect was trying to select for his cabinet the “best people possible … for all Americans.”

Meanwhile, the Agriculture Department's handling of civil rights complaints will come under scrutiny on Thursday at a hearing scheduled by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The hearing stems from a finding by an independent agency, the Office of Special Counsel, that half of the complaints against senior managers at USDA had not been acted on within the legally required time frame.

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On Nov. 21, the chairman and ranking Democrat on the committee, Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., wrote Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack demanding data and internal and external reports on the handling of Equal Employment Opportunity complaints filed during his tenure.

According to the lawmakers' letter, the Office of Special Counsel concluded that while USDA took corrective actions, the department only “partially resolved” the wrongdoing.

The biggest unfinished business for the lame duck session is to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government operating into March. The CR that is currently funding the government will expire Dec. 9. House Speaker Paul Ryan said in disclosing plans for the March extension that it would allow Trump to “have a say as to how spending is allocated in 2017.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers as early as this week could take up a possible conference report on the 2017 defense authorization legislation. The measure has been held up over a House provision that would bar the sage grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act.

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On Wednesday, the Farm Foundation will sponsor a forum on the shape of the next farm bill. The event will feature widely divergent views on the bill represented by Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives; Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, and Daren Bakst, agricultural research policy fellow for the Heritage Foundation.

Few people in Washington have a deeper knowledge of farm bill issues than Conner. He played a major role in coordinating agricultural policy in the last Republican administration during development of the 2002 and 2008 farm bills.

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

Monday, Nov. 28

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

Tuesday, Nov. 29

Agricultural Retailers Association conference and expo, Orlando, Fla.

Wednesday, Nov. 30

9 a.m. - Farm Foundation forum, “The Next Farm Bill:  What are the Agendas?” National Press Club.

10 a.m. - House Natural Resources Committee hearing on pending bills, including HR 5129, to authorize recreational use of federal lands, 1324 Longworth.

3 p.m. - USDA releases Quarterly Agricultural Export Forecast.

Thursday, Dec. 1.

8:30 a.m. - House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady speaks at Heritage Foundation forum on tax reform, 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE.

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

9 a.m. - House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on USDA handling of sexual harassment and gender discrimination complaints, 2154 Rayburn.

Friday, Dec. 2

Comment period closes on FDA's voluntary sodium reduction guidelines.

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