WASHINGTON, Mar. 1, 2017 - President Trump used his first speech to Congress last night to outline an ambitious agenda that includes $1 trillion in infrastructure spending as well as tax cuts and health care and immigration reform. He offered little in the way of new details.
“The time for small thinking is over,” Trump said. “The time for trivial fights is behind us.”
Trump doubled down on his attacks on traditional U.S. trade policy. He cited Abraham Lincoln as saying that ending a “protective policy” would leave American citizens in “want and ruin.”
His remarks on immigration reform are likely to disappoint agriculture. There were reports before the speech that Trump would support a major reform bill that provided some path to legalization for undocumented workers. But he instead emphasized the need to shift from low-skilled immigrants to a merit-based system that would somehow raise the wages of U.S. workers.
Trump renewed his proposal to pay for his massive infrastructure program with a mix of public funding and private investment. That reliance on private spending has raised concerns among senators who say rural states can’t attract adequate private capital.
Farm groups welcome Trump’s WOTUS withdrawal. A broad array of farm groups are welcoming President Trump’s executive order directing agencies to replace the Obama administration’s “waters of the U.S.” rule.
Obama’s rule would have expanded the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act over some wetlands and other areas that previously may have been exempted from federal regulation.
In a forthcoming Federal Register notice, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers say their new rule should limit the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act as it was interpreted by the late Justice Antonin Scalia in the Supreme Court’s 2006 Rapanos decision. Scalia said the Clean Water Act grants jurisdiction only over "relatively permanent bodies of water."
The president of the American Soybean Association, Ron Moore, who farms near the Mississippi River in Illinois, says the Obama rule “sought to expand EPA's authority into places where it was either unnecessary or duplicative, without any reasonable justification for doing so.”
The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives says a new WOTUS rule needs to stay “within the bounds of congressional intent and Supreme Court precedent.”
Conservation can’t take another hit in funding, panel told. Conservation programs have undergone some major changes in recent farm bills. But the biggest concern heading into the next farm bill appears to be hanging onto money that the programs now have. Another debate that is taking shape is over whether to expand the Conservation Reserve Program once again.
The House Agriculture Committee held its first hearing on conservation policy yesterday, and ranking Democrat Collin Peterson suggested reducing CRP rental rates as a way to expand the program. There’s concern that USDA has allowed the rates to get too high relative to the cost of renting farmland in states such as Iowa.
Another CRP supporter, Dave Nomsen of the wildlife group Pheasants Forever, told lawmakers that there’s a “grassland conservation crisis” and that the USDA should start enrolling large tracts of grassland in CRP again.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., suggested easing haying and grazing restrictions on CRP land so it could benefit livestock producers when they need the forage.
John Piotti, president of American Farmland Trust, warned the committee that the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which was created by the 2014 out of several small programs, faces a severe funding crunch. The program has been receiving an average of $405 million a year but its funding will fall to $250 million after 2018.
NRCS said to be understaffed. The lawmakers also were told that the Natural Resources Conservation Service struggles to provide the technical assistance that growers need.
Oklahoma rancher Chuck Coffey said NRCS “assistance is very hard to come by. They are inundated with paperwork,” Coffey said. Texas rice grower Tim Gertson says he sometimes knows more about NRCS programs than the agency’s staff does.
Gertson also suggested easing the three-year time limit for farm management practices funded by the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. He says the EQIP time limit makes it hard for landowners to afford the cost of providing waterfowl habitat.
No one from USDA testified at the subcommittee hearing.
Top appropriator: Trump cuts will face strong opposition. President Trump hasn’t even released his proposed budget yet but lawmakers already are balking at his plans to propose deep cuts in domestic discretionary spending to pay for a $54 billion defense buildup. A senior Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, Tom Cole of Oklahoma, says Trump can expect “a lot of blowback” in Congress.
“You’re kidding yourself if you think you can cut at that level out of a pot of money that’s roughly $400 billion, and not step on a lot of toes or undercut things like biomedical research … that have passionate defenders,” said Cole.
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the White House is looking at proposing a massive 37 percent cut to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. USAID operates food aid and agricultural development programs.
The conservative National Review worries that Trump’s proposed cuts are so “politically unrealistic” they’ll just lead the way to more deficit spending.
Congressional Fertilizer Caucus forms. The fertilizer industry now has an organized, bipartisan group of allies in the House. Twenty-eight lawmakers have joined the new Congressional Fertilizer Caucus.
Rep. Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican who will be one of four co-chairs of the caucus, says the regionally diverse group will be a platform to educate colleagues “about the important role fertilizer plays in providing the world with a safe and adequate food supply.”
The other co-chairs are Republican Dan Newhouse of Washington and Democrats Kathy Castor of Florida and Jim Costa of California.
She said it. “It’s nice to be on a committee where people think the federal government does some good.” - Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, referring to her colleagues on the House Agriculture Committee.
Steve Davies contributed to this report.