WASHINGTON, Jan. 6, 2016 - Congress heads into the election year with plenty of unfinished business when it comes to agriculture. No issue is more important to either side than GMO labeling, with the July effective date of the Vermont labeling law drawing ever closer.

But there are a number of other issues that didn’t get wrapped up in that flurry of pre-Christmas lawmaking, including reauthorization of school nutrition programs and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The Trans-Pacific Partnership will be ready for consideration in Congress. And opponents of the Obama administration’s “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rule are still holding out hope that Congress will kill it.

There will be relatively little time for Congress to act on any of these issues. Both party nominating conventions are scheduled for July, the long summer recess follows in August, and lawmakers will be doing little after that except campaigning. So, anything that Congress doesn’t address in the first half of the year will likely have to wait until after the November election.

“We’re hoping that by the time we get to… Memorial Day and the July Fourth recess we’ve got a lot of those pieces in place,” said Dale Moore, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, speaking of his group’s legislative priorities. The top items on the Farm Bureau’s to-do list include bills to block biotech labeling and the WOTUS rule.

Here’s a look at how those and other issues stand as the year begins:

GMO Labeling: The easiest legislative path for a bill to preempt state GMO labeling laws like Vermont’s was to insert language in the must-pass omnibus spending bill in December. That didn’t happen because of objections from Democratic appropriators Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Jon Tester of Montana.

Democratic Senate opposition is likely to be impossible to overcome without intervention from the Obama administration. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack disclosed to The Des Moines Register in December that he plans to try to broker a resolution.

Vilsack is planning to bring in both sides to talk, but no meeting has been scheduled. Doug McKalip, a senior adviser to Vilsack who moved from the White House to USDA last year, is serving as point on the issue. If the impact of labeling on the future of biotechnology is as dire as the industry fears, its hard to see administration officials wanting to leave that as their legacy.

Moore is optimistic that legislation will pass, given the pressure on the industry that is going to grow as the Vermont labeling requirements become closer to reality. That is “going to ratchet up the pressure to get something done,” he said.

Outlook: A lot depends on how far the industry is willing to compromise to get a preemption measure, and how hard the White House pushes labeling proponents.

School Nutrition: There is plenty of motivation on both sides to pass a reauthorization bill. The Obama administration wants to provide some permanence to the higher school nutrition standards that grew out of the expired Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Many school districts, meanwhile, want some flexibility built into the standards.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., says he had a bill ready to go as a rider to the omnibus, but aides to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., wouldn’t sign off on it.

The omnibus offered a shortcut to passage of a nutrition bill, which the House has never considered. With that option gone, the chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, which has jurisdiction over school nutrition programs, told Agri-Pulse in December that he plans to mark up his own bill.

“We’re going to have to do this through the regular authorizing process and not load it up on the last train leaving the station, which is the omnibus bill, which is a bad way to do business,” said John Kline, R-Minn. He said he would like to use the bill to increase the federal reimbursement to schools, but stopped short of saying that could be done. “I’m not looking for more ways to spend more money but we will absolutely be considering that,” he said.

The Senate Committee could mark up a nutrition bill as early as next week.

Outlook: When both sides of an issue want a bill passed, there’s a good chance it will.

WOTUS: Opponents of the rule wanted to get a rider in the omnibus bill that would have barred the administration from enforcing the rule should the courts lift the stays that are on it now. Such a rider would have been relatively easy to extend into fiscal 2016 via a continuing resolution that will likely be needed to keep the government operating until new spending legislation is enacted.

Congressional Republicans will likely try to keep the heat on the administration on this issue heading into the election. A disapproval resolution is pending in the House. A similar measure passed the Senate, 53-44, in November, but Democrats would likely uphold a veto in either chamber. “I don’t know if its possible for us to deal with that when we couldn’t get a rider on an appropriations bill,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

Outlook: The rule’s future probably hinges on the federal courts, where more than two dozen states are challenging the rule.

Trans-Pacific Partnership. President Obama wants Congress to approve the landmark, 12-nation trade deal this year, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in December seemed to rule out acting on the TPP before the election, which would leave it for the lame duck session, or the next president.

“Im sure McConnell meant what he said, but that doesnt mean hell be in the same place six months from now,” said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council.

But TPP will be a tough vote for many members from both parties, and the short legislative calendar will leave little time to consider the agreement this spring. The International Trade Commission has undertaken a comprehensive study of the agreement that isn’t scheduled for release until May 18. (The commission will hold a public hearing on the agreement next Wednesday.)

The front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, came out in opposition to the TPP last fall. But if she’s elected in November, it’s hard to see how she would stand in the way of a legacy issue for Obama passing in the lame duck, especially given her pro-trade background, and that of her husband, former president Bill Clinton.

Outlook: Check back in November.


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