Lawmakers probe the Trump administration’s handling of agricultural research this week, while the clock ticks on a series of issues — including the fiscal 2020 budget and the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement - that congressional leaders and the Trump administration need to make progress on ahead of the August recess. 

Also this week, the House will debate a Democratic proposal to raise the minimum wage from the current $7.25 per hour to $15 nationwide by 2024. The measure is the latest in a series of bills that have no chance of passing the Senate but are instead intended to highlight Democratic priorities heading into the 2020 election

The Congressional Budget Office said raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2025 would increase earnings of 17 million workers who would otherwise make less than that but also put 1.3 million other people out of work. 

On Thursday, the Senate Agriculture Committee will hold a hearing requested by the panel’s top Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, on USDA’s research programs. 

Stabenow has been a strong critic of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s decision to relocate the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture and has demanded answers from USDA about a report that USDA officials have downplayed climate change research. 

Perdue is going forward with relocating ERS and NIFA to Kansas City despite congressional criticism, and Monday is the deadline for affected employees to notify the department whether they will move. The American Federation of Government Employees was unable to persuade USDA to delay the deadline but does hope to begin negotiations this week on other requirements of the relocation. 

According to union surveys, a vast majority of the affected ERS and NIFA employees are likely to leave the agencies rather than relocate. 

Committee Chair Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican who supports the relocation, has nevertheless pledged to ensure that it does not degrade USDA research. But the lone witness, Scott Hutchins, will be under a microscope at the hearing. Hutchins, who is waiting confirmation as undersecretary for research, education and economics, was temporarily appointed by Perdue to serve as deputy undersecretary. 

Roberts notes that Hutchins wasn’t involved in the decisions about ERS and NIFA or climate research that Stabenow has criticized.

“Scott wasn’t on board for either one of those things,” Roberts said.

The bigger question facing congressional leaders and the White House is whether they can reach agreement on spending levels for fiscal 2020, which starts Oct. 1, and cut a deal to raise the government’s debt ceiling, which could be reached as soon as September. 

The House is only scheduled to be in session for two more weeks before starting a recess that will last until Sept. 9. The Senate is scheduled to be in session a week longer than the House before starting its August break. 

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has become the administration’s point man on the issues, has spoken several times with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but there were no signs that a deal is imminent. 

A senior Republican member of the House Appropriations Committee who is close to the GOP leadership, Tom Cole of Oklahoma, said it’s critical for lawmakers to know what the FY20 spending limits are as soon as possible so they can write spending bills for the new fiscal year. The House didn’t wait for agreement on spending levels to write its version of the FY20 bills, but the Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to start moving its version of the measures.

Cole likely speaks for many members of both parties when he says he hopes the White House won’t try to force another government shutdown when fiscal 2019 ends Sept. 30. 

“I think Mnuchin is giving (President Donald Trump) that advice from what I can tell, but I don’t know if the rest of his team is. I would think that stumbling into a government shutdown once last year would be more than enough to convince you that it’s not a good idea,” Cole said. 

There has been discussion of passing a continuing resolution to keep the government operating until December at FY19 levels. 

Also this week, a small group of House Democrats expects to continue their meetings with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer over ways to address their concerns about the USMCA, which would replace the existing North American Free Trade Agreement. 

A member of the task force, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., told Agri-Pulse the meeting this week would focus on Democratic demands to strengthen the environmental provisions in USMCA.

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

Monday, July 15

Deadline for employees of the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture to notify the department of whether they will move to Kansas City. 

Tuesday, July 16

Deadline for comments to FDA on its request for scientific data and information on products Containing Cannabis or Cannabis-Derived Compounds.

8:30 a.m. — FDA public meeting on new animal drugs, Johns Hopkins University, Rockville, Md. 

9:30 a.m. — Rural Advancement Foundation International, The Food Integrity Project at the Government Accountability Project, and the Organization for Competitive Markets hold news conference on meat and poultry industry contracting practices, National Press Club. 

10 a.m. — House Agriculture subcommittee hearing on the livestock and poultry economies, 1300 Longworth.

2:30 p.m. — Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee hearing on wild horse and burro program, 366 Dirksen.

Wednesday, July 17

10 a.m. — House Agriculture subcommittee hearing on the National Organic Program, 1300 Longworth.

5 p.m. — Washington International Trade Association awards dinner, Ronald Reagan Building.

Thursday, July 18

10:30 a.m. — Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on USDA research programs, 328A Russell. 

Friday, July 19

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