WASHINGTON, Sept. 7, 2016 - Congress is back in Washington this week after a seven-week hiatus, but the priorities of House and Senate leadership likely won’t leave much room for the goals of the nation’s food and agriculture organizations.
For starters, most legislators seem to want to fund the government and get back on the campaign trail. It’s anyone’s guess how long it might take to get to a deal on a continuing resolution that would avoid a government shutdown, but once that deal is done, lawmakers can be expected to stick around just long enough to approve it.
So where does that leave the laundry list of issues important to agriculture? Some of those priorities may be able to work their way into the so-called “CR,” but some will prove too politically sensitive with an election now just two months away.
With that in mind, the leaders of several farm groups spoke with Agri-Pulse at the Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, last week about their goals for the next several months. Several expressed a desire to see some movement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but Mary Kay Thatcher, the senior director for congressional relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation, said based on remarks from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that might not happen.
Speaking to members of the Kentucky Farm Bureau in August, McConnell said TPP “will not be acted upon this year,” and Thatcher says that dims prospects for the deal’s approval.
“We all had very high hopes for the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” she said, but based on McConnell’s comments, “I wouldn’t say there’s no chance, but I’d say the chance got slimmer.”
Even beyond the coming lame-duck session, Thatcher said passing TPP is going to be “very difficult, especially if (Republican presidential nominee Donald) Trump and (Democrat Hillary) Clinton both hold their positions.” Still, TPP looks to be a priority for a number of ag groups. John Weber, president of the National Pork Producers Council, called TPP, and trade more generally, “by far and away” NPPC’s top issue. Leaders from the American Soybean Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, and National Corn Growers Association all concurred, stressing the oft-stated benefits of the deal for ag producers.
Aside from TPP, the groups are also gearing up for another farm bill debate, but there are differences of opinion on the timeline for that bill. ASA leadership wants to see the bill completed early – preferably by the end of next year – given the troubles in farm country, including low commodity prices. ASA President Richard Wilkins told Agri-Pulse that stems from a desire to avoid election-year politics in 2018, when the current farm bill expires and mid-term elections could make it tough to deal with sensitive issues.
But NCGA and NPPC leaders were a little hesitant to buy into an accelerated timeline for a new bill. Wesley Spurlock, NCGA’s first vice president, said the 2014 bill is still basically “a brand new farm bill” with a few things left to understand, so instituting new legislation before the current bill is fully understood might be risky.
One key issue that drew support from many of the groups was a desire to avoid splitting the farm and nutrition programs into separate pieces of legislation.
“If you don’t have the votes, you don’t get a farm bill,” NCGA President Chip Bowling said. “In (NCGA’s) opinion, if you don’t keep the nutrition title as part of the farm bill, it is going to be very, very hard to get the votes for it.”
ASA Vice President Ron Moore agreed. He said he sees the farm bill as a food bill, so including nutrition programs makes sense.
Behind the scenes, a coalition of ag groups has already met several times to discuss the next bill and what needs to be done to get it passed. Many groups are surveying members to gauge opinions about the current bill and are also encouraging producers to participate in USDA surveys so accurate data is available. But until then, the groups are trying to hold together in hopes of winning what is expected to be an uphill legislative battle.
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