WASHINGTON, July 10, 2016 - With Congress about to break for the summer, the House is set this week to consider sending to President Obama an historic compromise on biotech food labeling.

Farm and agriculture groups will be sending a letter to House members on Monday similar to the one sent to senators June 28 that was signed by well over 1,000 organizations. The House Rules Committee will meet Tuesday afternoon to approve a rule for debating the legislation.

There are concerns that House conservatives may turn on the legislation either for philosophical reasons or because House Rules may not allow any amendments to be debated on the floor. Any changes to the bill would send the measure back to the Senate and leave its future in limbo.

Both the House and Senate will be out of session after this week until September. The Republican National Convention begins July 18 in Cleveland. The Democratic convention starts a week later in Philadelphia.

 House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway on Friday announced his support for the bill's passage after he received a letter from the Agriculture Department’s general counsel assuring him among other things that the legislation would immediately shut down Vermont’s GMO labeling law, which took effect July 1.

There has been some concern that the preemption provisions could be interpreted to not be effective until USDA finalizes a rule that will be needed to implement the federal disclosure standards. The bill would give USDA two years to write the rule but it could easily take longer than that.

In a statement announcing his support for the legislation, Conaway said he was nevertheless concerned that it was “riddled with ambiguity and affords the (Agriculture) Secretary a concerning level of discretion.”

Conservative criticism of the bill had little impact on the outcome in the Senate, which passed the legislation on a vote of 63-30. The margin would have been larger had seven senators, most of them supporters of the bill, not missed the vote. But opposition by Heritage Action, which made the bill a key vote in the Senate, may have a bigger impact in the House where hardline conservatives tend to hue closer to its positions.

“Instead of overreacting to one bad law in one state, Congress should take a step back before instituting a new labeling mandate,” said Heritage Action.

Some additional Democratic votes could counter the loss of conservatives. The ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, said he expected more Democrats to support the Senate bill than the 45 who voted for a House measure a year ago that lacked a GMO disclosure requirement. That bill, which passed the House, 275-150, would have preempted state biotech labeling laws and left it up to companies to decide whether to disclose GMO ingredients. 

The Senate bill would allow most food companies three methods of disclosure, through a digital code that can be read by smartphones or with a symbol or text on package labels. The majority of companies are expected to opt for using the digital, QR code designed to be used with the industry's SmartLabel program.

Small companies would be allowed to use a phone number or website address on the label. Companies considered “very small” would be exempt from the disclosure requirement.

House debates Interior-Environment bill

Also this week, the House will debate its fiscal 2017 Interior-Environment spending bill, which includes a number of provisions aimed at stopping or curbing regulations that would affect farmers and ranchers. The riders include one to block implementation of the “waters of the United States” rule should court stays be lifted.

The 168 amendments that have been proposed for debate include one filed by Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., that would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from penalizing any of the six states in the Chesapeake Bay region that fail to meet pollution-reduction goals mandated in the agency’s “total maximum daily load” (TMDL) plan.

The House Rules Committee will decide Monday which amendments will be considered on the floor.

A provision already in the bill would bar the EPA from allowing “designated representatives” of farm workers to demand records from farms on pesticide usage. Farm groups argue that activists could claim status as designated representatives to find out what chemicals farmers are using.

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The bill also would require the Bureau of Land Management to provide additional time for public comment on a proposed land management initiative, called “Planning 2.0.” The initiative would increase public involvement in development of resource management plans.

The bill would cut the EPA’s budget for implementing and enforcing regulations by $43 million, including a $25 million reduction in air and climate programs.

Deadline looms for comment on organic rule

Wednesday is the deadline for filing public comments on USDA’s proposed animal welfare standards for organic livestock and poultry.

The rule has come under bipartisan fire from Capitol Hill over requirements that hens be allowed access to the ground around barns. Large operations typically comply with the existing outdoor-access requirements by keeping hens on enclosed porches.

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

Monday, July 11

Chief agricultural trade negotiator Darci Vetter speaks to the American Soybean Association’s board on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. She also participates in a discussion at the Foreign Agricultural Service Global Conference.

11 a.m. - Cato Institute forum, “Why Six Presidents Opposed State-Sponsored Science — And Why You Should Too,” B-369 Rayburn.

3 p.m. - American Enterprise Institute forum, “Empowering Americans in poverty: A proposal for reforming the safety net,” 1150 17th Street NW.

4 p.m. - USDA releases Crop Progress report.

5 p.m. - House Rules Committee considers a rule for the fiscal 2017 Interior-Environment bill, H-313 Capitol.

Tuesday, July 12

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman speaks at the American Farm Bureau Council of Presidents meeting about the TPP and the rest of the President Obama’s trade agenda.

USDA National Advisory Council on Maternal, Infant and Fetal Nutrition meeting, through Thursday, Hilton Garden Inn Arlington-Shirlington, Va.

10 a.m. - House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing, “Changing Demands and Water Supply Uncertainty in California,” 1324 Longworth.

10:30 a.m. - House Appropriations Committee markup of the FY17 State-Foreign Operations bill, 2359 Rayburn.

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

3 p.m. - House Rules Committee meets to consider rule for the GMO disclosure bill, H-313 Capitol.

4 p.m. - USDA releases Crop Progress report.

Wednesday, July 13

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks at the League of United Latin American Citizens national convention, Washington Hilton, 1919 Connecticut Ave. NW.

Comment period closes for USDA’s organic livestock and poultry production rule.

10 a.m. - House Agriculture Committee hearing on the Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s proposed rule on automated trading, 1300 Longworth.

10 a.m. - House Appropriations Committee markup of the FY17 Labor-HHS bill, 2359 Rayburn.

1 p.m. - House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing on the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act, 1324 Longworth.

Thursday, July 14

Froman attends the National Governors Association summer conference in Des Moines, Iowa, through Friday.

8:30 a.m. - USDA releases Weekly Export Sales report.

Friday, July 15

Froman at the NGA summer conference.


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