The House and Senate farm bill negotiators meet formally for the first time this week with the expiration of the 2014 law less than a month away.
The conference committee meeting, scheduled for Wednesday in the Senate’s historic Kennedy Caucus Room, site of events ranging from the Watergate hearings to a farm bill conference committee meeting for what became the 2008 farm bill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., reiterated recently that he wants the conference committee to finish work on a new farm bill this month, but progress was slow in August with the House in recess all month and senators out of town for part of the month as well.
“Paramount is getting a bill” finalized, said Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan. He said he pushed staff members to make recommendations for resolving differences between the House and Senate bills.
Wednesday’s meeting will largely be taken up with opening statements by the 47 House and nine Senate conferees. The actual negotiations are taking place privately.
The farm bill isn’t the only major item on Congress’ to-do list as they return to work this month. Sept. 30 also is the end of the fiscal year, and lawmakers went into August hoping they could get at least some of the fiscal 2019 spending bills to President Donald Trump’s desk before October. When Trump signed the omnibus funding bill for fiscal 2018 in March, he insisted that he wouldn’t sign another giant, government-wide funding measure like that.
Both chambers have made more progress on annual funding bills this year than they have by previous Septembers, but most of the measures are still a long way from getting to Trump’s desk.
The closest to getting there is a package of bills funding energy and water programs, including the Army Corps of Engineers and military construction. A conference committee has been formed to negotiate a final version but hasn’t met yet.
The Senate has passed two other “minibus” packages of appropriations bills, including one that included the four that would fund USDA, FDA, EPA, the Interior and Transportation departments and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
The House hasn’t made as much progress on the floor, but has passed the Interior-Environment bill, including controversial policy riders that the Senate avoided. Among them is a provision to repeal the Obama-era “waters of the U.S.” rule.
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It’s also possible this month that the House will take up an immigration bill that would create a new visa program for agricultural workers while mandating that all employers, including farms, start using the E-Verify system to check the legal status of hires. House Judiciary Committee staff conducted a briefing on the bill for House aides in early August, following an earlier meeting between GOP leadership staff and farm groups.
The bill, crafted by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has sharply divided farm groups. Because of the E-Verify language, the bill is seen as important to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s bid to succeed Paul Ryan as House speaker.
The American Farm Bureau Federation has been trying to round up support for the measure, arguing that it can be improved in the Senate.
But the Western Growers Association and the California Farm Bureau Federation oppose the legislation, saying its treatment of the existing workforce is inadequate. Those groups fear the Goodlatte measure will become the starting point for an ag labor bill in a future Congress, if the legislation does pass the House this year.
Farm workers who are in the country illegally would have to apply for the new visa program and leave the country periodically; family members wouldn’t be eligible for the visas unless they also work on farms.
Paul Wenger, a former president of the California Farm Bureau, said the E-Verify requirement would be a “disaster” for farms without adequate legislation for the existing workforce.
But Paul Schlegel, managing director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the House bill is worth moving, despite its shortcomings. “We’d like to have a better, stronger treatment of our current workforce … At Farm Bureau believe we can get that in the Senate if we can get there.”
Here’s a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:
Monday, Sept. 3
Tuesday, Sep. 4
4 p.m. - USDA releases weekly Crop Progress report.
Wednesday, Sept. 5
U.S. and Canada resume NAFTA negotiations, Washington, D.C.
9 a.m. - USDA releases the annual Food Security in the United States report.
9:30 a.m. - Farm bill conference committee meeting, 325 Russell.
Thursday, Sept. 6
10 a.m. - House Oversight and Government Reform hearing, "Permitting: Finding a Path Forward," 2154 Rayburn.
10 a.m. - Senate Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee oversight hearing on the International Trade Administration and International Trade Commission, 192 Dirksen.
Friday, Sept. 7
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