The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a Clean Water Act case with major implications for agriculture, while farm groups who back a bipartisan ag labor bill will be lobbying lawmakers ahead of an expected House committee debate. 

On the trade front, farm groups are eagerly waiting for the White House to announce that it has nailed down “phase one” of a trade agreement with China. President Donald Trump suggested on Friday that the deal could be signed in Iowa, ground zero for the impact of the tariff war with China and home state of the U.S. ambassador to China, Terry Branstad. 

The case that the Supreme Court will consider on Wednesday revolves around whether pollution, including agricultural nutrients, that flows through groundwater is subject to federal permitting requirements. 

Farm organizations filed an amicus brief in the case, arguing that if the contested 9th  U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling is allowed to stand, it “has the potential to turn normal agricultural activity without [a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System] permit into a crime.”

Whether the case would go forward was in doubt in recent weeks as Maui County lawmakers debated their involvement in the lawsuit. The council voted 5-4 to withdraw, but the county’s top lawyer said the Maui County mayor also had to be on board with that decision, and he wasn't. 

So the arguments are proceeding as scheduled, with the possibility that the county could withdraw before the high court rules. That could only happen, if the mayor changes his mind or the state courts rule the county council has sole authority to withdraw.

The House is out of session this week, but farm groups expect the House Judiciary Committee to take up the ag labor bill as soon as next week, with floor action possible the week before Thanksgiving. 

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which had been under discussion for nine months before its release last week, would expand the H-2A program to year-round workers and cap wage rate increases, while offering legal status to existing agricultural workers who are undocumented. 

In return for the changes to H-2A, farmers would for the first time be required to use the E-Verify system to ensure that employees are eligible to work in the United States. 

Twenty Republicans led by Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., signed on as co-sponsors, but farm groups are working to find additional GOP support despite the provision legalizing existing workers. 

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, who represents a district in California’s Central Valley, is being urged to allow the GOP members to vote for the bill if they want to, said Sara Neagu-Reed, associate director of federal policy for the California Farm Bureau Federation. 

Many Democrats are expected to follow the lead of the bill’s chief sponsor, Zoe Lofgren, the California Democrat who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, said Neagu-Reed. 

The bill doesn’t have the support yet of the American Farm Bureau Federation, but AFBF hasn’t come out in opposition either. 

During the last Congress, AFBF supported a Republican bill that would have replaced H-2A without addressing the status of existing workers. The California Farm Bureau and the Western Growers both opposed that legislation, making it impossible for the GOP leadership to get the bill out of a House then controlled by Republicans. 

Meanwhile, farm groups continue to press the Democratic-controlled House to take up and approve the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement by the end of the year. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in an interview with the end of last week that she wouldn't rule out action on the implementing bill slipping into next year. 

Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind, a Democratic member of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on trade, told Agri-Pulse the negotiations with the White House continue to make progress and the goal is to approve the USMCA implementing legislation as soon as possible to avoid getting caught up in the 2020 campaigns. 

“Given the political calendar it would be ideal if we could get this done before the holidays just for the sake of certainty,” he said.

Monday, Nov. 4

4 p.m. — USDA releases weekly Crop Progress report. 

Tuesday, Nov. 5

10 a.m. — Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing on the nomination for deputy secretary of the Interior, Dirksen 366.

Wednesday, Nov. 6

U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments in County of Maui, Hawaii v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund

10 a.m. — Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee hearing on the Energy Policy Act of 2005, 366 Dirksen.

Thursday, Nov. 7

American Agricultural Law Association symposium through Saturday, Arlington, Va.

9:30 a.m. — Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on farm bill rural development programs, 328A Russell.

Friday, Nov. 8

Noon — USDA releases monthly Crop Production report and World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates.

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