WASHINGTON, Dec. 14, 2016 - The Senate closed out the 114th Congress in the wee hours of last Saturday, passing a water projects bill, the last of a series of legislative achievements that will have far-reaching implications for agriculture. Topping the list was the GMO disclosure legislation approved last summer, but Congress also enacted permanent tax benefits for farmers and authorized major agricultural and food aid programs for the first time.
But there were big whiffs, too, none bigger than the failure of Congress to act on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation trade agreement that President Obama finalized in 2015 but could never get Congress to consider after it became a whipping boy in the presidential campaign.
Congress also failed to reauthorize child nutrition programs or the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, or to agree on energy policy.
Here’s a look at the hits and misses of the 114th Congress:
GMO Disclosure. Vermont forced Congress to get involved in the GMO labeling debate by enacting a labeling requirement that took effect July 1. It took that deadline and some intense negotiations between Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow, with support from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, to enact a preemption law. In the end, the food and biotech industries got most of what they wanted. Disclosure is mandatory but companies will be allowed to put digital QR Codes on food labels, the basis of the industry’s SmartLabel system, rather than wording. The law was also written to limit the types of bioengineering and products that would be subject to disclosure.
Global Food Security Act. The legislation, , writes into law President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative and the new Emergency Food Security Program launched by USAID. The law ensures that the programs will live beyond the Obama administration. EFSP represents a significant reshaping of food aid policy. The program provides cash assistance or locally procured foods rather than U.S.-grown commodities, the central feature of the longstanding Food for Peace program. House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, won assurances that the EFSP authorization wouldn’t be used to force changes in the way that Food for Peace is operated.
Permanent tax benefit. A year-end tax-and-spending package enacted in December 2015 made permanent and indexed for inflation the enhanced Section 179 expensing allowance used by farms to offset the cost of tractors, combines and other new equipment. The legislation also extended a popular bonus depreciation allowance.
COOL repealed. The same legislation repealed the country-of-origin labeling requirement for meat to avert more than $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs that the World Trade Organization had authorized Canada and Mexico to levy.
Wind power, oil exports. In an unusual deal benefitting both fossil fuels and renewable energy, the 2015 legislation lifted the 40-year-old ban on oil exports and extended and phased out over five years the production credit for wind power. The extension for wind power was intended to serve as a bridge to the Obama administration’s greenhouse gas emission limits on electric utilities. The incoming Trump administration is committed now to killing those carbon rules.
Water projects authorization. The Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, passed early Saturday, authorizes new waterway projects, includes long-sought drought relief for California’s Central Valley and would benefit rural electric cooperatives by allowing states to regulate coal ash. The drought provisions would increase irrigation water supplies for farms.
Long-term highway bill. Congress in 2015 enacted the first long-term surface transportation bill in 10 years. In addition to funding road and bridge improvements, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act included a provision to allow for higher weight limits when transporting fluid milk.
Grain inspection, price reporting. Congress reauthorized USDA’s grain inspection services and mandatory livestock price reporting program just ahead of their expiration date in 2015. The grain inspection provisions include a key compromise sought by grain traders that could allow private inspections of grain when government inspectors are unavailable because of a labor disruption. The price reporting program was expanded to include more information on swine and lamb transactions.
Trade. The most consequential whiff by far was the failure of Congress to approve the TPP, which could expand exports of a range of commodities, including beef and pork, while imposing new disciplines on food safety measures and trade in biotech products. President-elect Donald Trump has promised to withdraw from the TPP but he’ll still be empowered to renegotiate that deal and enter into others because Congress passed trade promotion authority in 2015.
Energy bill. There were big hopes that Congress would pass the first major overhaul of energy policy since 2007, and negotiations continued into the final days of the 114th Congress. But Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said last week that the House pulled out of the talks. The Senate-passed bill included provisions to modernize the electricity grid, address cybersecurity concerns and promote smart buildings and advanced composite materials. The House bill included provisions to expand fossil fuel production and usage.
Child nutrition. The Senate Agriculture Committee in January advanced a bipartisan deal to reauthorize child nutrition programs, but Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., says he was ultimately unable to get a floor vote on it because of opposition from Democrats. Even if he had managed to push it through the Senate, it was never clear he could get a deal with the House, where conservatives would like to roll back the school meal standards implemented under the Obama administration. Some conservatives would even like to turn the program over to the states to run with their own rules. The failure of the Congress to act leaves the Obama meal standards in place. Roberts says he’ll try to move a new bill next year, but Senate Democrats likely can block any legislation that undermines the Obama-era rules.
CFTC. The failure of Congress to reauthorize the Commodity Futures Trading Commission is a bad thing only if you support GOP efforts to weaken the agency’s Dodd-Frank regulations. The agency doesn’t need congressional authorization to continue its work, so there was no downside for Democrats in blocking consideration of a GOP authorization bill. The agency, meanwhile, took some of the political pressure off of Congress to pass a bill by reworking key rules to address industry concerns, including position limits and an exemption for bonafide hedging.
Biofuel tax extenders. The $1-a-gallon tax credit for biodiesel as well as tax incentives for cellulosic ethanol and biofuel pumping equipment will expire Dec. 31 after Republicans rebuffed pleas to extend them another year. Their fate may rest on whether they get included in a tax reform package that House and Senate leaders are committed to doing next year. The biofuel industry faces a cloudy future, however, in Congress as well as with the Trump administration, where allies of the oil and gas industry will dominate key positions, including EPA.
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