Washington week ahead: Climate and controversy; Congress returns

By Daniel Enoch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Nov. 29, 2015 - The eyes of the world will be on Paris again this week, but for other reasons beyond terrorism. President Obama and 150 or so other world leaders are gathering in the French capital to try to forge a binding agreement to slow global warming.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and other Cabinet members will be joining the U.N. conference at various times. Vilsack is scheduled to speak about food security and how farmers can feed a growing world population but still combat climate change. Back home, Republicans who oppose Obama's agenda are taking aim at the international gathering. The House Science and Technology Committee chaired by Lamar Smith of Texas is holding a hearing on Tuesday titled, “Pitfalls of Unilateral Negotiations at the Paris Climate Change Conference.”

Against this backdrop, the EPA today could finally release its requirements for biofuels to be blended into the nation's gasoline supply - a decision that some will see as a measure of the administration's commitment to reducing the nation's dependence on fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, Congress is returning from its Thanksgiving break with huge issues still hanging before this year's legislative calendar expires. The government will shut down after Dec. 11 unless lawmakers can agree on a fiscal 2016 spending bill by then, or pass another short-term extension. Highway programs expire even sooner, this Friday, although lawmakers have been working to finish negotiations on a long-term reauthorization bill by then.

Agriculture and food interests are closely watching negotiations over the 2016 omnibus spending bill to see if it includes riders blocking the WOTUS rule and addressing other issues critical to the industry. The omnibus also could serve as the legislative vehicle to carry some major pieces of legislation across the finish line, including bills to preempt state GMO labeling laws and to roll back country-of-origin labeling regulations for meat, as well as an extension of child nutrition programs. Leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee have been negotiating all three of those issues.

Lets Talk Food

The reauthorization for child nutrition programs that Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts and ranking member Debbie Stabenow have been negotiating would provide some permanence to higher school nutrition standards while preserving some flexibility for schools that are having trouble complying with them. Those negotiations have been slowed while Roberts and Stabenow had to wait on a series of spending estimates.

Meanwhile, Stabenow has been leading discussions among Democrats on legislation that would preempt state labeling requirements for biotech foods but likely require disclosure through smartphone codes or the Internet.

Roberts told Agri-Pulse he's also working on a resolution to his impasse with Stabenow over repealing the COOL law, which Canada and Mexico successfully challenged at the World Trade Organization. The WTO could announce as soon as next week the level of retaliatory tariffs the two countries may impose on U.S. exports.

At issue are rules for a voluntary labeling system that might replace the mandatory program. Stabenow wants to preserve a requirement that animals be born, raised and slaughtered in the United States before the meat can be called a U.S. product.

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“I'm very hesitant at this point to say what or what we can't put in the omnibus,” Roberts said in an interview before the Thanksgiving recess.

Also on the congressional must-do list is a renewal of expired tax breaks, including the enhanced Section 179 expensing allowance and the 50 percent bonus depreciation provision. Senate tax writers want to review the tax incentives for 2015 and extend them through 2016.

Their House counterparts want to make some of the provisions permanent, but Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said before the Thanksgiving recess that he thinks they will agree on a two-year extension for now.

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

Monday, Nov. 30:

EPA expected to finalize its annual biofuel mandates for 2014-16.

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack travels to Brussels to address the European Parliament Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development on climate change, sustainability and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a trade treaty being negotiated with the European Union.

President Obama is scheduled to arrive in Paris as the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference gets under way. The objective of the conference, which runs through Dec. 11, is to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, from all the nations of the world.

Congress returns from Thanksgiving recess. House meets at 2 p.m. Senate convenes at 3 p.m.

5 p.m. Senate proceeds to executive session to consider nomination of Gayle Smith to be administrator of U.S. Agency for International Development.

Tuesday, Dec. 1

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack provides remarks on climate change, sustainability and TTIP at the EU Outlook Conference.

10 a.m. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on the Well Control Rule and other regulations related to offshore oil and gas production. Witnesses include: Brian Salerno, director, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, U.S. Department of the Interior, and Erik Milito, director, American Petroleum Institute. 366 Dirksen.

10 a.m. House Science, Space and Technology Committee holds hearing titled “Pitfalls of Unilateral Negotiations at the Paris Climate Change Conference.” Witnesses: Oren Cass, senior fellow, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research; Andrew Grossman, associate, Baker & Hostetler LLP; and Bjorn Lomborg, president, Copenhagen Consensus Center. 2318 Rayburn.

10 a.m. The House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on Energy and Power holds a hearing on its oversight of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The four current sitting FERC Commissioners are scheduled to discuss several issues related to the significant shifts taking place in the energy sector. Among the topics: EPA's cap and trade rules, grid security challenges, and natural gas pipeline permitting. - 2123 Rayburn.

Wednesday, Dec. 2:

Vilsack travels to Paris for the international Climate Change Conference where he will host an event on the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture. He will also host an event to release a new report on global food security and the U.S. food system.

9:30 a.m. House Science, Space and Technology Committee presents exhibits of research being conducted aboard the International Space Station. At 10 a.m. there will be a live downlink with astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren from the Space Station. 2318 Rayburn.

10 a.m. Senate Agriculture Committee holds hearing on agriculture industry's role in combating global hunger. Witnesses include Deputy Agriculture Secretary Krysta Harden and Richard Leach, CEO of the World Hunger Program USA. 328A Russell.

10 a.m. House Agriculture Committee holds hearing on Farm Credit System. 1300 Longworth.

10 a.m. House Financial Services Committee's Capital Markets and Government Sponsored Enterprises Subcommittee will hold a hearing to review legislative proposals to enhance capital formation for small and medium-sized companies.

Thursday, Dec. 3:

10 a.m. House Science, Space and Technology Committee's Energy Subcommittee holds a hearing on the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (H.R. 4084). 2318 Rayburn.

10 a.m. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds heading on implementation of Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.  366 Dirksen.

Friday, Dec. 4:

(With reporting by Phil Brasher)

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