WASHINGTON, Feb. 12, 2017 – The House Agriculture Committee this week begins laying the groundwork for writing a new farm bill, while Senate Republicans gear up for a fight over another cabinet nominee important to agriculture, Andrew Puzder, President Donald Trump’s pick to run the Labor Department.

Trump, fresh off his weekend with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, will host Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday. They are likely to at least touch on Trump’s demands for renegotiating the North American Free-Trade Agreement.

The House Ag committee will hold a hearing on the state of the farm economy on Wednesday, and on Thursday will hear arguments for and against restricting the types of foods and beverages that can be purchased under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway believes the slumping farm economy makes a potent political argument for getting a new farm bill done by next year without further cuts in spending. A USDA forecast released last week estimated that net farm income will fall by nearly 9 percent to $62.3 billion, the lowest level, when adjusted for inflation, since 2002.

“There are really hard times in production agriculture right now and you need some friends,” Conaway said Saturday at the National Cotton Council’s annual meeting in Dallas.

USDA will provide some new data for lawmakers to chew on when it releases its new 10-year projections for the farm economy on Thursday.

Conaway plans to start holding subcommittee hearings on the farm bill when lawmakers return from their week-long President’s Day recess. The holiday this year is celebrated on Feb. 20.

Conaway has given no indication that he is interested in restricting SNAP purchasing. Nutrition advocates and the food and beverage industry have long fought such limits.

But a USDA study released in November found that 20 cents of every dollar in SNAP benefits went for sweetened drinks, desserts, salty snacks, candy, and sugar. Another 40 cents is spent on meat, fruits, vegetables, milk eggs, and bread. The remainder goes toward cereal, prepared foods, dairy products, rice, beans, and other cooking ingredients.

“Many of us believe that the more decisions you make on behalf of people, the more dependent they become,” Conaway said, suggesting one option was to incentivize more healthful food choices.  “Everybody will be at the table,” including beverage manufacturers, as the committee considers changes in the program, he said.

The Senate continues to slog through the confirmation process for Trump’s cabinet nominees. His nominee for Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue, is unlikely to get a hearing before March because the Senate Agriculture Committee is still waiting on paperwork and his FBI background check. Two other nominees, Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator and Ryan Zinke as Interior Secretary, are still waiting to get votes on the Senate floor.

Democrats can’t stop any of the nominees from being confirmed as long as Republicans remain unified, but Democrats intend to bring as much attention as possible to nominees such as Pruitt and Puzder. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer on Thursday called for Puzder to withdraw from consideration, citing his labor record at CKE Restaurants, the company he runs that owns the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. chains.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has scheduled a confirmation hearing on Thursday for Puzder, more than two months after Trump announced his nomination. The Labor Department regulates worker safety and wages and manages the H-2A and H-2b guest-worker programs used by farms and processors.

Even if Democrats can’t stop nominees such as Puzder, they aim to impose “some constraints on their actions and on the president’s actions,” said Schumer.

Puzder spokesman George Thompson called the allegations against the nominee “fake news.” Puzder understands how the right policies can spur economic growth and bring more opportunity for all Americans,” Thompson said.

It is also possible that the Senate could consider an amendment this week to kill the Obama administration’s changes in the process the Bureau of Land Management uses to make decisions about land use. The House last week approved the resolution, 234-186.

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The BLM Planning 2.0 rule seeks to manage lands on an ecosystem basis. Critics say it would dilute the input of local and regional officials and put too much emphasis on environmental concerns. The rule is one of a series of measures released late in the Obama administration that Republicans are systematically killing though the seldom-used Congressional Review Act. The law allows Congress to hold up-and-down votes on rules within a limited period of time after they’ve been finalized.

Here’s a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:

Monday, Feb. 13

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits President Trump.

U.S. Grains Council annual meeting, through Wednesday, Panama.

Agriculture Retailers Association winter board of directors meeting, Westin DC City Center.

Tuesday, Feb. 14

USGC annual meeting.

Wednesday, Feb. 15

National Council of Farmer Cooperatives annual meeting, through Friday, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

10 a.m. - House Agriculture Committee hearing, “Rural Economic Outlook: Setting the Stage for the Next Farm Bill,” 1300 Longworth.

10 a.m. - House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing with the USDA Inspector General, 2362-A Rayburn.

10 a.m. - Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the Endangered Species Act, 406 Dirksen.

2 p.m. Farm Journal Foundation forum on “Leveraging U.S. Technical Assistance for Improved Development Outcomes, with former USDA chief economist Joe Glauber and Hanna Abou El Seoud, representing American Soybean Association, 215 Dirksen.

2:30 p.m. - Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing, “Moving America: Stakeholder Perspectives on our Multimodal Transportation System,” 253 Russell.

Thursday, Feb. 16

NCFC annual meeting.

8:30 a.m. - USDA releases Weekly Export Sales report.

8:30 a.m. – Washington International Trade Association forum on “Past, Present and Future of U.S. China Trade,” Ronald Reagan Building.

10 a.m. - House Agriculture hearing on the pros and cons of restricting SNAP purchases, 1300 Longworth.

10 a.m. - House Education and the Workforce subcommittee hearing on federal wage and hour policy, 2175 Rayburn.

10 a.m. - Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Andrew Puzder’s nomination to be Secretary of Labor, 430 Dirksen.

Noon - USDA releases Long-term Agricultural Projections to 2026.

Friday, Feb. 17

NCFC annual meeting.


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