WASHINGTON, Aug. 31, 2016 - Congress ends an unusually long summer break next week facing critical unfinished business and little time to complete it. Dominating the to-do list is funding for the federal government in fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1.

A series of critical tax subsidies for the biofuels industry also are slated to expire at the end of the year. Unless Congress renews them, the tax benefits will be left in limbo when a new president and Congress take office in January.

An important potential development in agricultural trade with Cuba will also be at stake this fall: Shortly before lawmakers left town in July for the national party conventions, Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., announced that he had reached a deal with key GOP colleagues to lift important financial restrictions that have impeded U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba. He’s hoping for congressional approval before the end of the year. No action has been scheduled yet.

Also pending is a comprehensive energy bill. The question is whether there is enough time for the House and Senate to work out differences between bills passed by the two chambers. The Senate appointed its conferees shortly before lawmakers left town in July. The House negotiators were named in May.

Senate Democrats resisted going to conference until Republicans agreed on restrictions on what could be part of a final deal. With that fight resolved, negotiators “are working to reconcile differences and produce a final bill that can clear both chambers. “The energy bill is one of the few policy issues that may be resolved before the November election,” said Democratic lobbyist Heather Podesta.

Many in agriculture would dearly love to see Congress approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the lame-duck session, but so far House and Senate GOP leaders have ruled that out. Hillary Clinton says she opposes the 12-nation trade deal in its current form, and Donald Trump has made opposition to the TPP a keystone of his GOP campaign.

Both the House and Senate will be back in session Sept. 6, but the House will shut down for the election at the end of the month, and the Senate is scheduled to break for the election after the first week in October.

Congress hasn’t enacted a single one of its dozen appropriations bills for fiscal 2017, so lawmakers will have to pass a continuing resolution in September to keep the government running until after the election.

Such stopgap spending measures are a bit less contentious in election years – neither party wants to shut down the government with voters headed to the polls – but the appropriations process has bogged down in a partisan fight over funding to fight the Zika virus. Democrats have blocked a Republican funding agreement over restrictions it would put on Planned Parenthood. The fight could flare again when the stopgap bill is released for debate. 

The bigger question is what Congress does in a lame duck session about funding the rest of fiscal 2017. House GOP leaders would like to do what they did the past two years and pass a government-wide omnibus measure that funds the remainder of the fiscal year, freeing the new president and Congress to start working on fiscal 2018 issues.

But some conservative advocacy groups and their allies in the House have been pushing to block any omnibus from being passed until the next president and the new Congress take office. Heritage Action opposes “any funding legislation that necessitates a lame duck session,” said spokesman Dan Holler.

But conservatives could change their tune if Democrats take over the Senate and Republicans lose seats in the House. “Circumstances are going to have to dictate what you decide youre going to do during that lame duck period,” said Bob Young, chief economist and deputy executive director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

If Democrats were to take control of the Senate, “would you be all that excited to say, ‘Lets wait and write an omnibus in the next Congress?’ Im not sure how excited Heritage would be about that,” he said.

A number of policy provisions will be at stake in the decisions that are made about the spending legislation. They include policy riders in House and Senate bills that would block the implementation of the “waters of the United States” rule. Another provision sought by farm groups and contained in a House-passed Interior-Environment bill would bar EPA from allowing designated representatives of farm workers to demand records from farms on pesticide usage.

A continuing resolution, or CR, is unlikely to include any such policy provisions. The only way they could get included is in a post-election agreement with the White House to pass an omnibus, or series of smaller such bills.

Also at stake in that debate will be an increase in spending to help the Food and Drug Administration implement the Food Safety Modernization Act, which is imposing a series of new regulations on farmers and food and feed manufacturers. The Senate’s FY17 Agriculture spending bill would increase FSMA funding by $40.2 million, $15 million more than President Obama requested. The House version of the FY17 bill contains an increase of $33 million.

Prospects for the biofuel tax extenders are even cloudier. A sweeping spending and tax bill that Congress passed last December provided long-term extensions of a tax credit for wind power as well as expensing and bonus depreciation allowances widely used by farmers, but tax incentives that subsidize biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol and biofuel pumps were only extended through 2016.

House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, opposes considering any tax extenders this year, a spokeswoman said, but the National Biodiesel Board isn’t giving up hope.

Congress has repeatedly allowed biodiesel’s $1-a-gallon tax credit to lapse for extended periods and that’s “very disruptive” to the industry, said Ben Evans, a spokesman for the industry. “Theres clearly some opposition in the House,” he acknowledged. “There’s always been opposition in the House to doing extenders.”


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