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Policy Issues: Drought, Farm Bill, EPA, and the Budget

Policy Issues- Drought, Disaster

A news release yesterday from USDA stated that, “Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today designated 597 counties in 14 states as primary natural disaster areas due to drought and heat, making all qualified farm operators in the areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans. These are the first disaster designations made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2013.”

The USDA update noted that, “The 597 primary counties designated as disaster areas today correspond to the following states: Alabama, 14; Arkansas, 47; Arizona, 4; Colorado, 30; Georgia, 92; Hawaii, 2; Kansas, 88; Oklahoma, 76; Missouri, 31; New Mexico, 19; Nevada, 9; South Carolina, 11; Texas, 157; and Utah, 17.”

In 2012, USDA designated 2,245 counties in 39 states as disaster areas due to drought, or 71 percent of the United States,” yesterday’s update said.

In an exclusive interview yesterday on the Fox News Channel “Happening Now” program, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack discussed the ongoing U.S. drought and USDA’s response to the situation.

Sec. Vilsack also spoke briefly about the crop insurance program and the Farm Bill.

A video replay of Sec. Vilsack’s interview from yesterday (about six minutes) can be found here, at FarmPolicy.com Online.

For more information from USDA on the drought and drought assistance, just click here.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg writer Alan Bjerga reported yesterday that, “Rain will keep water levels high enough to avert a shutdown of barge traffic along a Mississippi River choke point this month before volumes begin a seasonal rise in February, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said.

“More than an inch of rain is expected in St. Louis tomorrow, with further precipitation in four of the following five days, Bloomberg weather data show. That should improve a forecast that has the Mississippi downriver near Thebes, Illinois, falling to levels where barges would face restrictions by Jan. 22, said Michael Petersen, a Corps spokesman. Contractors are currently removing rock obstacles from the riverbed near Thebes to help keep the channel open.

“‘We’re coming down the home stretch before we get a natural rise out of the river,’ Petersen said today in a phone interview from St. Louis.”

Yesterday’s article added that, “The Corps may also release water from reservoirs further north on the Mississippi should rain be less than expected, he said. Still, the situation will need to be monitored as the worst U.S. drought since the 1930s, which created the low water levels, makes historical patterns a less reliable predictor of future flows, he said.”

In other news regarding the drought situation, Jack Healy reported in today’s New York Times that, “Across the West, ranchers, farmers and county sheriffs are grappling with a new scourge: hay rustling.

Months of punishing drought and grass fires have pushed the price of hay, grain and other animal feed to near records, making the golden bales an increasingly irresistible target for thieves. Some steal them for profit. Others are fellow farmers acting out of desperation, their fields too brown to graze animals and their finances too wrecked to afford enough feed for their cattle.”


Policy Issues- Farm Bill

DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton reported yesterday (link requires subscription) that, “Agriculture policy begins 2013 back where 2012 began — with a renewed push to write a farm bill. Congress also is expected to argue about immigration reform and the Renewable Fuels Standard.

“Though a new farm bill looked promising for a fleeting moment in 2012, Congress failed to finish the legislation. The farm bill got an extension, but, in reality, it had little to do with the importance placed on agriculture. Debate about the role of farm policy began in earnest at the end of the year only when more urban lawmakers began to get phone calls from consumers about milk prices possibly doubling.

“House Agriculture Committee members are now demanding a commitment from House leadership before they attempt to move another farm bill. Yet, the farm bill may again find itself simmering on the backburner, as Congress is already set up this winter and early spring to fight a series of battles on spending cuts, the debt ceiling and the annual budget process.”

Mr. Clayton added that, “The shape of the farm bill may be better known once the smoke settles in early March, following the next round of fights about long-term budget cuts and the debt ceiling. An agreement could settle for the Ag Committees just how much they will be expected to cut in the farm bill, including nutrition support. Reflecting how wide the gap was on food programs last year, the projected cuts to food programs ranged from $4.5 billion in the Senate farm bill to $122 billion in the House budget plan, none of which ended up being enacted.”

Chris Sholly reported on Tuesday at The Lebanon Daily News (Pa.) Online that, “Although Congress kicked the farm bill down the road 10 months ago, a Pennsylvania Congressman predicted a new bill will be ready by April.

“Republican Congressman Glenn Thompson of State College, who represents the 5th Congressional District, is the state’s only representative on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee.  He was a guest speaker at the FFA’s annual convention at the Pennsylvania State Farm Show Monday.”

The article noted that, “Thompson said he was glad the extension passed but not that it was extended to October. He said believes Congress will take up the issue again soon and ‘get it done by April.’”

And, Tim Engstrom reported earlier this week at the Alberta Lea Tribune (Minn.) Online that, “There is a good likelihood that Congress will pass a farm bill in coming months, said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar on Tuesday during a stop in Albert Lea.”

The article noted that, “Klobuchar said the new Senate has many of the same faces and likely can pass the same measure it did with bipartisan support last summer. Sixty-eight out of 100 senators voted in favor. She said the measure saves $23 billion over 10 years and preserves rural development initiatives, strengthens crop insurance and maintains dairy programs.

However, getting it through the House of Representatives will be tricky. She said she believes it will pass.

“‘Our advantage is cost-reduction,’ she said.”

The article also stated that, “After the House’s failure to pass the farm bill, some pundits stated rural American was losing clout, saying lobbyists couldn’t get the issue to the forefront.

Klobuchar disagreed. She said the measure wouldn’t have passed with more than two-thirds of support in the U.S. Senate if rural America lacked clout. She noted the farm bill passed by the Senate has support from the American Farm Bureau and the National Farmers Union.”

In a brief interview yesterday on WEEK-TV (Peoria, Il.), Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Il.) discussed the Farm Bill and budget issues- a video replay of this discussion is available here, at FarmPolicy.com Online.

Also, an opinion item posted yesterday at The Picayune Item (Miss.) Online stated that, “Fresh from winning selection as the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee for the 113th Congress, Mississippi U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s decision about whether or not he’ll seek re-election in 2014 becomes even more meaningful to Mississippians…[A]s a senator from the poorest state in the union, the Senate Agriculture Committee also holds sway over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – the federal program that my generation knew as ‘food stamps’ — a program that fed some 650,744 people in our state in 2012.

“Mississippi’s unfortunate impoverishment makes this state ground zero for the SNAP program. A staggering 21 percent of Mississippi’s population participates in the program.”

Yesterday’s opinion item added that, “Or to put in more directly, Southern farmers who raise rice and peanuts are poised to see if the federal government gives them a smaller, less substantive farm safety net than that being afforded to farmers in the Midwest producing corn and soybeans.

“That’s the business side of the fight. On the humanitarian side of the farm bill fight is what happens to the SNAP program and how that impacts states with large poor populations — states like Cochran’s home state.”

In addition, an update earlier this week at the Delta Farm Press indicated that, “It’s been hard enough for the U.S. cotton industry to try to make sure Congress fashions a good farm bill for cotton producers. But the National Cotton Council is also having to try to reassure the government of Brazil the U.S. cotton program will be in compliance with the WTO ruling in the Brazil cotton case. The NCC’s Mark Lange discussed the farm bill outlook in this interview at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences”- video here.

Also with respect to the Farm Bill extension, Shay Alderman reported yesterday at the Southeast Missourian (Cape Girardeau) Online that, “In the wake of policies made during last-minute efforts to keep the nation from falling off the fiscal cliff, local dairy farmers and industry leaders worry about long-term stability. They want lawmakers to more seriously consider the potential effects of not protecting food producers.”

The article pointed out that, “‘Well, it was disappointing, there’s no doubt about it,’ said Dave Drennan, executive director of the Missouri Dairy Association.

“Drennan said the dairy industry spent the last three years trying to reach a consensus on dairy policy and was encouraged by the approval of versions of the bill by the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture during the summer. In the end, he said, the U.S. House of Representatives ‘kicked the can down the road’ instead of bringing it to the floor for a vote, leaving farmers to wonder where to go from here.”

Yesterday’s article also noted that, “‘It’s terrible,’ [Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R., Mo.)] said of the process of trying to get the bill passed. ‘Our leadership just made me furious.’

“When asked if the nutritional program benefits should be separated from subsidies that support farmers, Emerson said yes, in principal, but in reality it would be impossible.

“‘If you just take those two groups separately, you’d never get either of those bills passed, which is why they ended up being married in the first place,’ Emerson said. ‘You’d never get enough votes to pass either.’”

In other news, an update this week at The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Miss.) reported that, “Congressional delegations from Mississippi and Arkansas want the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work with them to allow hunting over rolled rice fields.

“Lawmakers said federal and state wildlife agencies are calling hunting over rolled rice fields illegal field baiting.

“U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran said citing hunters is ‘a case of federal agencies working at cross purposes, leaving farmers and hunters in a bind.’”

The article noted that, “The legislation backed by Cochran and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, both R-Miss., died in the past Congress. U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., whose district is the largest rice producer in the state, tells The Commercial Appeal that he will introduce the bill this year.”

Meanwhile, Bob Meyer reported yesterday at Brownfield that, “A GMO-labeling bill has been introduced in the New Mexico State Senate. The bill seeks to amend the New Mexico Food Act to require the labeling of any food or commercial animal feed containing more than 1-percent genetically modified material by weight. It would require the label to be ‘conspicuous and easily understandable to consumers.’”

Also yesterday, the “Washington Insider” section of DTN reported (link requires subscription) that, “Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., has introduced legislation to exempt farms and conservation lands from estate taxes as long as they remain in those uses. Bishop, whose 1st District is located on the far eastern tip of Long Island, has among his constituents many small farmers whose estates face high taxes because current law requires land to be valued at its ‘highest and best use’ for estate tax purposes. On Long Island, that means the value of land used for large, single family houses.

Bishop’s proposal would affect farmers who find themselves in similar circumstances of owning land on the fringes of an urban area that is subject to price pressure from housing developers.”


Policy Issues- EPA, Energy, Climate

A recent update at The Seattle Post-Intelligencer Online reported that, “President Obama is about to nominate outgoing Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire as the new head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to a very private prediction from a very senior source in Washington’s congressional delegation…Gregoire was director of Washington’s Department of Ecology before being elected Attorney General in 1992.”

Also, Bloomberg writers Jim Snyder & Mark Drajem reported yesterday that, “Four years ago, President Barack Obama said his energy and environmental advisers would work to develop a ‘new hybrid economy’ based on wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources.

Lisa Jackson has announced her exit as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who faced congressional criticism over green-energy programs, could follow. Obama may end up assembling a second- term team for a different task: how to manage the boom in U.S. production of oil and natural gas.”

Note that Ed Crooks and Anna Fifield reported this week at The Financial Times Online that, “US oil imports will fall to their lowest level for more than 25 years next year, as production booms while demand grows only slowly, according to a government forecast.

“The US Energy Information Administration predicted that net imports of liquid fuels, including crude oil and petroleum products, would fall to about 6m barrels per day in 2014, their lowest level since 1987 and only about half their peak levels of more than 12m during 2004-07.”

And Keith Johnson reported in today’s Wall Street Journal that, “The U.S.’s temperature record for 2012, after a year of extreme weather, is increasing pressure from some scientists and environmentalists on President Barack Obama to take further steps to curb the emissions they say contribute to climate change.

“But congressional opposition and a sputtering economy all but rule out the prospect of sweeping legislation, leaving regulation as the most likely way the administration could try to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.”

Ben Geman reported yesterday at The Hill’s Energy Blog that, “Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is floating legislation to impose fees on greenhouse gas emitters, a plan that’s highly unlikely to advance but shows that liberal lawmakers intend to ramp up calls to tackle global warming in the new Congress.



Erik Wasson reported yesterday at The Hill’s On the Money Blog that, “House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Wednesday asked the White House if it will once again miss the legal deadline for submitting an annual budget to Congress.

“Under the law, Obama must submit a budget by the first Monday in February, but he has met the deadline only once. The annual budget submission is supposed to start a congressional budgeting process, but that has also broken down. The Senate last passed a budget resolution in 2009.”

The update added that, “An administration source said this month that ‘no decisions’ had been made on budget timing this year.”

And, Alexander Bolton reported yesterday at The Hill Online that, “Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is poised to play a bigger role in negotiations to reform entitlement programs in the wake of the tax deal he helped forge last week.

“Lawmakers see the passage of a bill to extend most of the Bush-era income tax rates and settle the question of estate, capital gains and dividend tax rates as a template for how to move the next installment of deficit reduction.”

Keith Good