WASHINGTON, Feb. 8, 2015 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack heads to Capitol Hill this week to field questions on his implementation of the farm bill at a time when farmers nationwide are struggling over high-stakes decisions about subsidy programs the legislation created.

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said he has some concerns about the capacity of the USDA computer systems to handle the enrollment process for farm programs.

So far, “a relatively small percentage” of eligible farms have decided which of the two main new commodity programs, Price Loss Coverage and Agriculture Risk Coverage, to sign up for, Vilsack said last week. However, the department has been advising producers to take their time. The deadline for signup is March 31. So far, about 75,000 to 80,000 producers have enrolled in one of the programs out of an estimated 1.7 million eligible nationwide.

Vilsack also could get questions about some pending regulations -- a proposed rule tightening what it means to be “actively engaged” in farming, a prerequisite for receiving subsidies, and an interim final rule implementing the farm bill’s revisions in conservation compliance. Both rules are under review at the Office of Management and Budget.

Also Wednesday, Republicans will have a chance to press their attack on the Obama administration’s proposed Clean Water Act rule as the Army Corps of Engineers face appropriators on both sides of the Hill.

Jo-Ellen Darcy, the assistant Army secretary who oversees the Corps, will testify before the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee in the morning and its Senate counterpart in the afternoon.

Last week, Darcy and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy refused to back off from the rule, which would re-define what streams, ditches and other features the law regulates as “waters of the United States.” She and McCarthy promised to clarify a number of issues in the final regulation but pointedly didn’t specify how the language could be revised.

The House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, which writes budgets for USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, kicks off its fiscal 2016 hearings this week, too, meeting with the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Timothy Massad, on Wednesday and USDA’s inspector general, Phyllis Fong, on Friday.

The full House, meanwhile, begins what could be a yearlong, off-and-on debate over tax policy, and one of the first issues that will be discussed is the Section 179 expensing allowance that’s widely used by farmers to write off purchases of combines and other farm equipment.

The House will take up a pair of bills later in the week that would permanently extend the Section 179 allowance, with inflationary adjustments, as well as a charitable tax deduction for donations of food.

The bills have no chance of becoming law as they are, because of the steep cost. Despite their political popularity, most Democrats are likely to vote against them. Those tax breaks are among a series of popular provisions that Congress has been extending only on a temporary, one-year basis.

The House Ways and Means Committee advanced a series of permanent tax extenders last week over the objections of Democrats. “If we’re going to come up with a new spending proposal or tax cut, we’ve got to find a way to pay for it, to offset it, so we’re not increasing our debt burden on future generations,” said Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis.

But Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said that the permanent extenders would give businesses, families and charities needed “certainty.” “It’s about time we got around to making them permanent — instead of all these back-to-the-future extensions,” he said.

The steep price tags for the bills illustrate why Congress struggles to even pass one-year extensions. The Section 179 extension alone, HR 636, would reduce federal revenue by $77 billion over 10 years. The permanent deduction, HR 644, for food donations would cost an additional $2.2 billion.

The Senate, meanwhile, remains snarled over the Department of Homeland Security spending bill. Democrats have refused to allow the legislation to advance because of House provisions intended to roll back President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

The issue likely won’t come to a head until the last week of the month. The continuing resolution that is currently funding the department is set to expire Feb. 27, so by then Congress must agree on either a full funding bill or another stopgap measure.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s persistence in forcing cloture votes on the bill set off some bickering in the GOP caucus.

“Republicans have a couple of weeks to figure this out, and we’re hopeful that they will,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

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


Monday, Feb. 9


11:45 a.m. - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack holds a conference call with the news media to announce funding to help producers fight citrus greening.

1:45 p.m. - The Fish and Wildlife Service announces a cooperative agreement and national fund to protect the monarch butterfly, National Press Club.

3 p.m. – USDA releases Agricultural Trade Data Update.

Tuesday, Feb. 10


Vilsack hosts a media conference call to discuss efforts to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy systems.

10 a.m. – Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on ports, 253 Russell.

10 a.m. – Senate Finance Committee hearing on 1986 tax reforms, 215 Dirksen.

11 a.m. – USDA releases Farm Sector and Household Income Forecast.

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

1 p.m. – Food and Drug Administration public hearing on the environmental impact statement for the produce safety rule proposed under the Food Safety Modernization Act, Harvey W. Wiley Federal Building, College Park, Md.


Wednesday, Feb. 11


9:30 a.m. – Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the administration’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, 406 Dirksen.

10 a.m. – House Agriculture Committee hearing with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, 1300 Longworth.

10 a.m. – House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, 2362-A Rayburn.

10 a.m. – House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on surface transportation reauthorization, 2167 Rayburn.

10:30 a.m. – House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the Army Corps of Engineers, 2362-B Rayburn.

11 a.m. – USDA releases Long-Term Agricultural Projections.

2 p.m. – House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on Energy Department’s fiscal 2016 budget, 2123 Rayburn.

2:30 p.m. – Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation, 291 Dirksen.


Thursday, Feb. 12


U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman meets with Brazil’s Minister of Development, Industry and Trade, Armando Monteiro.

9:30 a.m. – House Agriculture Committee meeting to approve budget views, followed by hearing on the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, 1300 Longworth

10 a.m. – Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the Energy Department budget, 366 Dirksen.

10:30 a.m. – House Energy and Water Appropriations hearing on Bureau of Reclamation, 2362-B Rayburn.


Friday, Feb. 13


Vilsack travels to Minnesota to promote the president’s trade agenda.

10 a.m. – House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing with USDA’s inspector general, 2362-A Rayburn.

Noon – USDA releases national and state-level 2012 census report for specialty crops.


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