WASHINGTON, Feb. 8, 2017 - There is more evidence of a continued downturn in the U.S. farm economy. USDA says that net farm income is likely to decline this year by 8.7 percent to $62.3 billion. That would make this the fourth straight decline since the peak in 2013. 

Adjusted for inflation, it would be the worst performance for the U.S. farm economy since 2002, according to the department.

Cash receipts for cotton and dairy producers should be somewhat higher this year but those increases will be offset by declines in the wheat and beef sectors.

The weak numbers are likely to be used on Capitol Hill to bolster the case for moving a new farm bill during this Congress. 

FBI backlog holding up Perdue. Sonny Perdue, President Trump’s nominee for agriculture secretary, appears to be headed to a relatively easy confirmation. But Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts says he’s holding off scheduling a confirmation hearing for Perdue because the FBI is backlogged in completing background checks. 

If the hearing can’t get scheduled next week, it will have to wait until at least the end of the month or March. 

Senate GOP leaders are emphatic that all of Trump’s pending nominees will eventually be confirmed.

McConnell backs long-delayed Labor pick. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, is standing behind another nominee who’s far more controversial but also important to agriculture - Trump’s pick to run the Labor Department, fast-food executive Andy Puzder.

His long-delayed confirmation hearing is finally expected to take place next week.

For more on the pending nominations, plus an in-depth look at what Trump’s Supreme Court nominee could mean for agriculture, be sure and read this week’s Agri-Pulse newsletter. 

House votes to kill BLM planning rule. The House has taken the first step toward killing an overhaul of the way the Bureau of Land Management makes land-use decisions. The House voted 234-186 yesterday to approve a resolution that would eliminate the BLM Planning 2.0 rule issued in December by the outgoing Obama administration. 

The Senate still must approve the resolution and send it to the White House. Four House Democrats, including Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, voted for the measure. 

Ranchers and other critics say the new planning process would dilute the influence of local and regional officials on BLM decisions. Supporters of the rule say it provides for broader, ecosystem-wide management and better accounts for the environmental impact of BLM decisions.

California cracks down on egg producers. Prosecutors in California have filed the first criminal charges for violations of the animal welfare standards that voters approved in 2008. The  San Bernardino County district attorney alleges that hens at a farm near Ontario were being kept in overcrowded cages. 

The charges resulted from an investigation carried out by the Ontario police department and the local humane society. 

California’s Prop 2 says hens must be allowed to fully spread their wings without touching other birds or the sides of their enclosure.

Farm groups press Trump on Japan. The beef and pork industry wants President Trump to use a visit by the Japanese prime minister this week to accelerate negotiations on a bilateral trade agreement. The Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump has withdrawn the United States from promised new market access to beef, pork and other sectors, and now those industries are worried about losing out to competitors. 

Getting a bilateral deal with Japan won’t be easy, however. Bill Reinsch, an international trade expert with the law firm Kelley Drye, says that getting Japan to agree to the same market access provisions that were in the TPP will depend on the balance of concessions in a new agreement. And, he says, that balance could “well be different” in a bilateral deal than it was in the TPP, which involved 12 different countries. 

Kent Bacus, director of international trade and market access for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, says the European Union is already close to finalizing an agreement with Japan. “We need to work fast, because the rest of the world is pursuing (trade deals) while we wait,” he said.

House chairman aims to ‘make EPA great again.’ The chairman of the House Science Committee, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, is kicking off his panel’s work by spotlighting the way the EPA makes regulatory decisions.

Smith, who held a hearing yesterday titled “Make EPA Great Again,” is expected to reintroduce versions of bills he dropped in the last Congress - the Secret Science Reform Act and the Science Advisory Board Reform Act. 

The secret-science bill would require EPA to make all data that underlie regulatory decisions available to the public. The second bill would require EPA science advisory boards be more diverse, meaning less likely to agree with EPA.

Environmental and public health groups have said the secret-science bill would grind EPA rulemaking to a halt. For example, if EPA can’t release certain data because they include confidential business information or patient records, the agency couldn’t use the data when writing regulations.

Congratulations, James Glueck. James Glueck is replacing Joel Leftwich as Republican staff director for the Senate Agriculture Committee as the panel gears up to write a new farm bill. Glueck served at USDA during the George W. Bush administration and has been on the Senate Agriculture Committee staff since 2013. 

Leftwich hasn’t announced yet what he’ll be doing next. 

Glueck was active in 4-H growing up in the Texas panhandle, and he wrote about his experience for a book on 4-H experiences in Texas. 

Besides honing his interest in agriculture and world affairs, he said 4-H allowed his family to enjoy several unique “vacations,” including spending many nights sleeping alongside dairy cattle in Houston, San Antonio and elsewhere.

He said it. “This is the slowest time for a new cabinet to be up and running since George Washington.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Spencer Chase and Steve Davies contributed to this report.