The House of Representatives Friday narrowly approved the America COMPETES Act, pushing the legislation that is supposed to make the U.S. more competitive with China closer to enactment. While similar to the Senate version passed last summer, the House bill – passed with a 222-210 vote – includes significant differences, such as the inclusion of the Ocean Shipping Reform Act, and also reauthorizes and alters the Trade Adjustment Assistance and Generalized System of Preferences programs.

House passage Friday means the that both houses of Congress will have to reconcile the bills and then a final version would have to be voted on again in the Senate and House before being sent to the White House to be signed into law.

While much of the COMPETES bill is not aimed directly at agriculture, the House voted Thursday evening to include the Ocean Shipping and Reform Act as an amendment. The bill, already approved as stand-alone legislation from Reps. John Garamendi, D-Calif., and Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., is aimed primarily at improving conditions for U.S. shippers to get agricultural commodities to customers throughout Asia.

A key provision would block ocean carriers from refusing to load containers full of U.S. dairy, pork, beef, poultry, tree nuts, wine, hay, rice and produce.

A Senate version of OSRA was introduced Thursday, and ag trade officials say they are hopeful that senators will agree to add the House legislation when both sides reconcile the competitiveness bill.

The COMPETES Act also renews and increases funding for Trade Adjustment Assistance – a program that gives aid to workers who lost employment because of imports and revives Generalized System of Preferences, which cuts some import tariffs on developing nations.

“It’s long past time for Congress to modernize these programs and ensure they are inclusive, reflect our nation’s values, and align with our current trade policies,” Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., said about revamping TAA and GSP.

TAA is set to expire later this year and GSP expired last year.

But some Republicans insisted the changes are not what is called for.

Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, the top GOP member on the Ways and Means Committee, stressed that TAA should only be approved together with a reauthorization of Trade Promotion Authority – expired legislation that is key to allowing the U.S. to strike new free trade agreements.

America urgently needs to be a leader on ambitious new trade agreements around the world, in order to present an alternative to China’s model in the region,” Brady said. “Democrats are instead passively endorsing the Biden Administration’s trade moratorium.”

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As to GSP, Democrats added new environmental and labor requirements for developing nations to qualify.

Trade watchers are hoping that India will once again qualify for the program. When the U.S. kicked India out, a major factor was the country’s effective ban on U.S. pork, but that has since been rectified. India removed its bureaucratic barrier to U.S. pork in January.

Two amendments to the bill that would tighten reporting requirements on foreign investment in U.S. agriculture were also approved on the House floor yesterday.

The first, sponsored by Mark Pocan, D-Wis., would tighten the current law that requires the USDA to compile reports on foreign ownership of U.S. land. 

Under the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act of 1978 (AFIDA), foreign investors are required to report their land holdings to the department, but according to a 2017 report by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, the USDA has difficulty tracking businesses that do not self-report their acres. 

Additionally, in an email to Agri-Pulse, a USDA spokesperson said the department depends on companies to report correct information.

“We rely on the honesty of filers (or their U.S. attorney representatives) to accurately report acreages, foreign country, and other data,” the spokesperson wrote. 

Pocan’s amendment requires the USDA to create an online database of foreign-owned agricultural land available to the public and allow the agency to charge more for companies violating the current disclosure rules. 

Currently, the USDA can charge violators up to 25% of the fair market value of land purchased for not reporting their acres or filing inaccurate reports. Under the rule proposed by Pocan, that cap would be eliminated and the USDA would be able to charge up to the full value of the land.

“Millions of acres of American farmland have been purchased by foreign investors, and at the same time food prices have increased and small and local farmers and ranchers have struggled,” Pocan told Agri-Pulse in a statement. “This amendment would strengthen current law and give the American public access to good data about future increases in foreign-owned farmland, protecting our food, our farms, and our future.”

Another amendment proposed by Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, targets broader investment in the agriculture sector, with a distinct focus on China. 

The amendment requires the State Department and the USDA to “write a report on foreign investment in the agriculture sector of the United States and the impact of such investment on the national security of the United States.” The measure would also require them to prioritize Chinese investment when writing the report. 

“Our adversaries, like the Chinese Communist Party, are working overtime to undermine American interests, and my amendment will be an important step to secure America’s food supply by identifying areas where the federal government needs to protect against inappropriate interference,” Jackson wrote in a statement to Agri-Pulse

Jackson said he was “eager” to work with the House and Senate conferees to include the measure in the final bill.

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