The White House steps up its campaign to get Congress to approve the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement this week, dispatching U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer for hearings on both sides of Capitol Hill.
Also this week, the House will start debating a five-bill package of fiscal 2020 spending measures that includes funding for the Agriculture Department, Food and Drug Administration, Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency.
Lawmakers have filed dozens of amendments to the legislation in bids to force debates on issues ranging from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to the federal sugar program and the “waters of the U.S.” rule that defines the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.
Lighthizer will testify before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday and then head to the House Ways and Means Committee the following day. Those committees have jurisdiction over trade agreements. Agricultural issues will probably play prominent roles in both hearings, and Lighthizer is likely to be grilled about the administration's ongoing trade war with China.
Because Democrats control the House, the Ways and Means hearing likely has the highest stakes for Lighthizer, and the hearing should provide insight into Democrats’ latest thinking about the deal.
President Donald Trump, who traveled to Iowa last Tuesday to promote the USMCA, insists he believes the USMCA implementing legislation will be “approved quickly.”
“I think it’ll be a very bipartisan bill. It’s very much needed for the farmers, manufacturers,” he told reporters later in the week. “The unions like it, everybody likes it. It’s something that is very important, and as you know Canada’s totally in line and Mexico’s totally in line and now it’s up to us to get it passed.”
If a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing last week is any indication, lawmakers aren’t likely to hear much reason from Lighthizer to be optimistic about a deal soon with China or Japan. In both cases, Gregg Doud, USTR’s chief agricultural negotiator, told senators he couldn’t say when an agreement would be reached.
The House is wrapping up debate this week on the first five-bill minibus appropriations bill, which includes FY20 funding for such departments and agencies as the Labor Department, Army Corps of Engineers and Defense Department, before turning to the second package, which includes USDA, FDA, Interior and EPA.
The House Rules Committee will meet Tuesday to decide which of the proposed amendments for that package will get debated on the floor.
The amendments that have been filed include several aimed at stripping the bill of provisions that would block Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue from relocating the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Agriculture to Kansas City.
Another amendment, filed by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., would require USDA’s inspector general to investigate how the department’s trade assistance package was structured and implemented. An amendment filed by Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., would block the administration from finalizing a rule that would make it harder for states to get waivers from work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents who get SNAP benefits.
A reliable target of farm program critics, price supports for sugar producers, would be rolled back under amendments filed by Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa. He’s unlikely to prevail even if he gets a vote on the measure, however. Backers of the program easily defeated an amendment that targeted the program during debate on the 2018 farm bill.
Republicans also have proposed an amendment to block the Obama-era “waters of the U.S.” rule from being enforced. EPA is in the process of replacing the rule, which is in force in 22 states where its enforcement hasn’t been blocked by court rulings.
The bill rejects Trump’s proposals to slash many USDA program and instead includes some significant increases for rural development, and international foreign aid. Rural development programs, including broadband assistance, would be increased by 13%. International food assistance would be increased by 19%
The overall funding levels are at best tentative, however, because Congress has yet to agree on FY20 spending levels. The Senate Appropriations Committee hasn’t started writing its FY20 bills while waiting for an agreement on funding caps. Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said last week that the committee will begin moving its bills in July if there is no deal before then.
Also this week, USDA is opening enrollment on Monday for the Dairy Margin Coverage program, an overhauled version of the Margin Protection Program that was inadequate to protect dairy farmers from a slump in milk prices over the past several years. Enrollment will continue through Sept. 20.
Leading dairy economists as well as Perdue and lawmakers who oversaw the development of DMC are encouraging producers to sign up for the program, which is certain to provide far more in payments this year than producers will fork over in premiums, assuming farms sign up at the maximum, $9.50-per-hundredweight coverage level.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: dairies should sign up their first 5 million pounds of production history the $9.50 coverage level,” said House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn. “I know times are tough, but this program is going to provide some real help.”
Here is a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:
Monday, June 17
U.S. Trade Representative public hearings on proposed Section 301 tariff list, through Friday, International Trade Commission, 500 E Street SW.
Tuesday, June 18
10:15 a.m. — Senate Finance Committee hearing with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, 215 Dirksen.
5 p.m. — House Rules Committee meeting to consider rule for the fiscal 2020 appropriations package for Commerce-Justice-Science, Agriculture, Interior-EPA, Military Construction, and Transportation-HUD, H-313 Capitol.
Wednesday, June 19
9:30 a.m. — House Ways and Means Committee hearing on trade policy, 1100 Longworth.
10:00 a.m. - Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, 216 Hart.
10:30 a.m. — Senate Appropriations Committee meeting to consider supplemental appropriations bill for border security and humanitarian assistance, 106 Dirksen.
2:30 p.m. Senate Small Business Committee hearing on disaster assistance, 428A Russell.
Thursday, June 20
10 a.m. — House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on fuel economy and clean car standards, 2123 Rayburn
Friday, June 21
11 a.m. — USDA Farmers Market.
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