WASHINGTON, Oct. 5, 2016 - Congress has left Washington until after the election with a long list of unfinished business important to agriculture, including spending bills, expiring biofuel tax breaks, child nutrition reauthorization, Cuba trade liberalization and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Of those issues, the prospects for TPP may be the most dim.
When lawmakers return, the first order of business will be to fund the government for the rest of fiscal 2017, which started Oct. 1. Before departing last week, lawmakers approved a continuing resolution to keep the government operating until Dec. 9 at the fiscal 2016 spending levels.
Under pressure from conservatives, Republican congressional leaders say they won’t write a government-wide omnibus spending bill as they’ve been doing in recent years, but will instead bundle spending bills in small groups, or “minibuses,” that would be debated separately. Democrats fear that Republicans will use the minibus approach to fund GOP priorities like defense and leave some departments to operate for the rest of the fiscal year under a continuing resolution.
The issues at stake in the spending negotiations include funding for farm loans, which are in high demand due to low commodity prices. The Agriculture Department has been struggling to reduce a backlog of applications.
The congressional leaders haven’t disclosed their strategy for the lame duck, but if history is a guide the minibuses or omnibus will serve as the vehicles or vehicle to carry a number of other priority bills, including the tax extenders. Here’s a look at some of the outstanding issues for the lame duck session:
TPP: Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, raised the hopes of TPP supporters last month by telling reporters he hoped to get the 12-nation trade deal approved during the lame duck. But in a Sept. 29 press conference, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ruled out taking up the deal. McConnell said the TPP is “politically toxic” and that putting it to a vote would be a mistake. “I don’t think the Congress is ready to tackle it in any positive way,” he said. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters Tuesday that there would have to be a “real change of heart” in the Senate for the TPP to get a vote.
Cuba trade. The Senate’s FY17 Financial Services appropriations bill includes a provision that would lift the requirement that Cuba pay upfront in cash for agricultural imports. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., has support from key Cuban-American lawmakers from Florida for a bill that would end the requirement permanently. Crawford sees the Senate’s appropriations rider as only a short-term fix and would rather pass his standalone bill. “I don’t know if we’re going to get there or not in the lame duck, but we’ll see,” he said.
Child nutrition. The Senate Agriculture Committee approved a bipartisan bill in January but the measure stalled when cost estimates came in over budget. Committee leaders eventually found the extra money but were unable to get the unanimous consent they needed to get Senate passage in September. Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he still hopes to get the bill enacted after the election. A few senators from both parties have raised questions about the bill, but neither the senators nor their concerns have been specified publicly.
The ranking Democrat on the committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, said she and Roberts were “working very hard to get the last remaining concerns” addressed.
The bill would ease school meal rules on sodium and on whole grains while broadly preserving the higher nutrition standards that the Obama administration has imposed.
Tax bill. A $1-a-gallon tax credit for biodiesel as well as tax benefits for cellulosic ethanol and E85 pumps are set to expire Dec. 31, but McConnell said he is “committed” to taking up a tax extenders package in the lame duck.
Crawford wants to add his new proposal for farm disaster accounts to an extenders bill. He tells Agri-Pulse his proposal has the support of House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady. Crawford’s Farm Risk Abatement Management (FRAME) Act, would allow farmers to make $50,000 in tax-deductible contributions each year to the accounts. Crawford’s fallback plan is to get the bill considered when the farm bill is up for debate in the next Congress.
Endangered species. Republican appropriators have had mixed success in recent years blocking various endangered species listings through riders on the Interior-Environment bills. The GOP provisions are proving just as controversial this year. Negotiations over a defense authorization bill bogged down in September over no less than a provision to bar a listing of the sage grouse.
Overtime rule. Cooperatives and others in agriculture are concerned about a new overtime rule that would double the salary threshold for overtime pay eligibility to $47,476. A bill that would delay the effective date by six months to June 1, 2017, passed the House last week on a near party-line vote, 246-177. A provision in the House Labor-HHS appropriations bill would bar the administration from enforcing the rule through the rest of fiscal 2017. The six-month delay passed by the House might be more politically doable, but the House vote indicates there is strong Democratic support for the rule.
WOTUS. FY17 appropriations bills in both chambers contain provisions to block the “waters of the United States” rule from being implemented. But the White House successfully blocked a similar rider from being included in the FY16 omnibus. While court actions blocking its implementation have taken some urgency out of the issue this year, the White House continues to fight the rider.
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