WASHINGTON, September 9, 2015 - A long list of major agriculture and food issues will be on the agenda in Washington this fall, including GMO labeling, child nutrition, the “waters of the U.S.” rule and the country-of-origin labeling law for meat.

Biofuel producers as well as farmers and farm implement businesses are eagerly waiting renewal of various tax benefits, called tax extenders, which have lapsed again this year.

The biggest concern of all will be getting congressional agreement on fiscal 2016 spending. A spending bill could serve as the vehicle not only for attacking Obama administration regulations, including the WOTUS rule that has taken effect in 37 states (a federal judge blocked implementation in the remaining 13 others) and various endangered species issues. Unrelated bills, including a reauthorization of child nutrition programs, could also be attached to the spending measure.

The Senate, and the Agriculture Committee specifically, will be the focus of much of the attention on everything else. The GMO labeling issue is under Agriculture’s jurisdiction as is the COOL law and child nutrition. The committee also has responsibility for reauthorization measures for grain inspections and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

Here’s the state of play on the major issues:

GMO Labeling - prospects: Cloudy. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., has yet to find a Democratic co-sponsor for a companion bill to the House-passed measure that would preempt state labeling laws. Beyond that, there’s the challenge of finding the 60 votes necessary to ensure the bill could move in the Senate.

Farm Bureaus in states including North Dakota, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana used the August recess to urge Democratic senators to at least agree to provide one of the 60 critical votes for cloture on the bill.

The House passed its version of the bill, the Safe and Affordable Food Labeling Act (HR 1599), in July.

COOL Repeal - prospects: Dim, for now. The top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, has blocked passage of a House-passed bill to repeal the COOL law. Stabenow insists on authorizing a voluntary labeling program that would bar meat from being labeled as a product of the United States unless the animal was born, raised and slaughtered in this country.

Chandler Goule of the National Farmers Union, which is allied with Stabenow, says the politics could shift depending on how much the World Trade Organization allows Canada and Mexico in retaliatory tariffs for damages the countries say they’ve suffered under the legislation.

Child Nutrition - prospects: Improving. Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has been negotiating with Stabenow on details of a bill to extend the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which expires Sept. 30. The Obama administration has started to push for passage of a new bill, figuring that it would cement in place the higher school meal standards that were set under the current law.

Schools could get some continued flexibility on the standards. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he expects to have provisions to give schools relief on both sodium and whole grains. Roberts has set a markup for Sept. 17 but the schedule could slip.

A deal will hinge in part on finding money for various initiatives, including the summer feeding program. “That could potentially blow everything up,” said a lobbyist for a nutrition advocacy group. When lawmakers wrote the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids act they funded it through what was supposed to be a temporary cut in food stamp spending. The money was never restored. 

Pairing the reauthorization bill with the fiscal 2016 spending measure could provide a source of funding outside of nutrition programs.

The chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, John Kline, R-Minn., is expected to introduce a bill of his own. He announced last week that he isn’t seeking re-election in 2016 and made no mention of the nutrition issue as a priority for the remainder of his chairmanship.

WOTUS Repeal - prospects: Won’t happen. Obama would veto any bill that killed the rule, and a repeal bill has yet to make it to the Senate floor. But the rule could be delayed during fiscal 2016 if Republicans get agreement on an omnibus spending bill and include a rider blocking WOTUS implementation.

The situation now is a bit bizarre. U.S. District Judge Ralph R. Erickson of North Dakota blocked implementation of the rule in 13 states that filed suit in his North Dakota court and let it go forward in the other 37.

Tax Extenders - prospects: Certain. But farmers may have to wait until December again this year for Congress to pass the extenders, including the expanded Section 179 expensing allowance, bonus depreciation and various subsidies for biofuels, including the $1-a-gallon biodiesel tax credit.

The extenders often get hostage to other priorities, and that’s happened again this year. Ahead of the August recess, House leaders were holding out hope for tying the extenders to a broader overhaul of tax policy that would be used in part to fund a long-term highway bill. The Senate Finance Committee in July approved a two-year extension of the measures.


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