August 20, 2019

Farm Bill; Budget; Ag Economy; Biotech; and, Immigration

Farm Bill

Emma Dumain reported on Friday at Roll Call Online that, “The House will have a busy January judging by the lengthy legislative agenda Majority Leader Eric Cantor circulated among his colleagues on Friday.

“The Virginia Republican’s memo, obtained by 218, lays out the obvious items of business: passing conference reports for the farm bill and for legislation funding the nation’s water programs, plus an appropriations bill for the remainder of fiscal 2014.”

In part, Rep. Cantor’s memo stated that, “Chairmen Frank Lucas and Bill Shuster, along with our conferees, continue to work towards agreement with their Senate counterparts on the Farm bill and WRRDA conference reports, respectively. These two conference reports represent new ideas on how government programs should work and as soon as they are ready for consideration, I expect to schedule these in the House.”

Chris Clayton pointed out on Friday at the DTN Ag Policy Blog that, “Cantor’s main work on the farm bill thus far has been to hit ‘the pause button’ while helping split the legislation into two pieces last summer.”

Meanwhile, Alexander Bolton reported yesterday at The Hill Online that, “Senate Democratic leaders feel cautiously optimistic they have the 60 votes they need to advance unemployment benefits legislation on Monday, but that marks only the start of the congressional battle.

“Even if the legislation passes the Senate next week, it faces an uphill road in the House. Advocates for extended benefits say the fight could play out between the chambers for weeks.”

The Hill update added that, “At least, House Republicans say the $6.4 billion cost of extending benefits another three months should be paid for with deficit-reduction measures.”

Stephanie Condon reported on Friday at CBS New Online that, “House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., sent a memo to House Republicans on Friday with January’s legislative agenda. Nowhere did it mention unemployment benefits.”

Nonetheless, Mike Lillis and Vicki Needham reported on Saturday at The Hill’s On the Money Blog that, “Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) remains open to an extension of emergency unemployment benefits even in the face of growing conservative opposition to such a move.

“The Ohio Republican maintains the position he expressed last month that Republicans would ‘clearly consider’ an extension of federal help for the long-term unemployed ‘as long as it’s paid for and as long as there are other efforts that will help get our economy moving once again,’ Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Friday.”

The Hill writers added that, “Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said Senate passage of a bill could put Boehner under more pressure to bring up the measure, but he cast doubt on its chances. Van Hollen noted that GOP leaders last month rejected his proposal, sponsored with Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), to extend UI benefits by three months and offset the costs by reducing farm subsidies.

“‘The Speaker refused to allow a vote at that time,’ Van Hollen told MSNBC Friday. ‘So our hope is that a push from the Senate will get things moving in the House, but the jury is still out.’”

Meredith Shiner and Emma Dumain indicated on Friday at Roll Call Online that, “Extended unemployment benefits for about 1.3 million Americans expired on Dec. 28, and Congress is unlikely to restore those payments swiftly, or at all.”

The Roll Call article stated that, “Yet Democrats — especially in the House, where supporters are waiting to see what the Senate is able to do — are not inclined to negotiate now. They argue that unemployment insurance extensions have not required pay-fors in the past, and they shouldn’t going forward. In the House, where any extension likely would pass with a majority of votes from the minority, Democratic leaders have not identified any potential offsets.

“‘There’s nothing in our back pocket,’ said the House Ways and Means Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, on a Friday conference call. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., indicated on that same call his unwillingness to discuss offsets at this time.”

Janet Hook and Siobhan Hughes reported in today’s Wall Street Journal that, “Democrats have argued against offsetting the cost of the three-month benefit extension, saying that could further damage the economy by taking money from other groups that need it. ‘Offsets can be harmful,’ said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D., Md.).

“However, some Democrats say privately they would be willing to consider a compromiseperhaps by linking a benefit extension to the farm bill, which is expected to generate savings by ending the system of direct payments to farmers and replacing it with crop insurance and other protections.”

In more specific Farm Bill developments, Jerry Hagstrom reported yesterday at National Journal Online that, “As Congress returns to take up the farm bill this month, pressure is finally growing on Republicans to pass a new bill for the most basic of reasons: political survival.

For the last several years, commodity prices have been so high that farmers haven’t been concerned about their safety net and farm leaders have found it impossible to get their members to put on the kind of grassroots campaigns that are usually required to get a bill enacted. Those high prices have allowed Republicans, particularly in the House, to engage in an endless debate over food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

“Now big crops and the Obama administration’s decision to consider lowering the volumetric requirements for corn-based ethanol and biodiesel under the renewable-fuel standard have sent commodity prices plummeting and raised questions about land values. As Bloomberg has reported, corn prices in 2013 experienced their biggest one-year drop since 1960 and wheat prices dropped the most in five years. Prices haven’t fallen below profitable levels yet, but farmers and their bankers now see that they need the certainty of a five-year bill, whatever its details.”

Mr. Hagstrom pointed out that, “Since the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a farm bill in 2012 and 2013 and the House passed it in 2013 after the most excruciating lengthy battle, there seems to be an understanding in political circles that if the conference report gets held up, rural voters will see it as the fault of the Republicans in general and the House Republicans in particular.”

After a detailed analysis, the National Journal article concluded by explaining that: “The farm bill could also be a factor in Senate primaries. Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., would certainly benefit from the completion of a farm bill in his primary battle against a more conservative opponent.

“The congressional farm-bill leaders—House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who is chairing the conference; Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.; House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn.; and Cochran—still have work to do. They have not yet released their framework bill or held a final public conference meeting, but they are expressing confidence that their product will be accepted. The bill could still become mired in a debate over whether its savings should be used to offset an extension of unemployment benefits.

“But Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters last week that he expects Congress to send a bill to President Obama by the second week in January. That could be an optimistic time-frame, but it would certainly be welcomed by a lot of candidates running for election.”

On Friday, and yesterday, Sen. Grassley continued to tweet about payment limitation issues, and Sen. Grassley was also a guest on Friday’s AgriTalk radio program with Mike Adams.

During the AgriTalk discussion with Mr. Adams, Sen. Grassley elaborated on the Farm Bill and specifically discussed current issues associated with the payment limitation variable- related audio here (MP3- 2:20).

And with respect to nutrition related issues, Stephen Koff reported late last week at the Cleveland Plain Dealer Online that, “With the congressional food fight over benefits for the poor about to resume, the federal government quietly released a report on New Year’s Eve that suggests there is still a high need for food stamps.

“The statistical report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, also shows that despite partisan rhetoric about food stamp fraud and abuse, a record low rate of food stamps are given out in error – 3.42 percent in 2012 when all errors were accounted for.

“But only 2.77 percent of errors involved overpayment, including fraudulent applications for benefits that were approved and subsequently caught. The rest – 0.65 percent – occurred in cases where the government gave fewer benefits, not more, than the recipient was entitled to.”

The Plain Dealer article noted that, “The SNAP annual Quality Control Report comes from reviews and audits by states as well as the USDA. This year’s release on New Year’s Eve came with no publicity and some in the social services community were unaware of it. Think tanks and social services agencies await the report yearly so they can evaluate trends. But some of the data was reported piecemeal earlier.

“Such a report might normally bolster arguments by Democrats and liberal activists against more cuts to SNAP. To SNAP supporters, the report is likely to affirm the program’s efficiency. Congressional Republicans say that SNAP benefits – issued through a debit-like card and formerly issued in the form of coupons or stamps – have become bloated and wasteful.”



David Rogers reported yesterday at Politico that, “House-Senate negotiators are slated to meet Monday in hopes of narrowing their last differences over a $1 trillion-plus omnibus spending bill that attempts to fill in the blanks after December’s budget deal and avoid another shutdown next week.

“If last month’s agreement said how much Congress can spend this year, the giant appropriations measure now spells out where the dollars will go. Hundreds of pages long, it literally touches every corner of the government. But its very scope also invites conflict over everything from Wall Street’s banks to Appalachia’s coal industry — championed by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.).

“The challenge now is to find balance — and be fast about it.”

Mr. Rogers noted that, “Adding to the stakes now is the fact that the House and Senate Agriculture committees are also pressing to complete their own long-delayed farm bill in this same two-week window.

Staff talks continued through the weekend on final legislative language in hopes of having the full farm bill conference meet late this week, perhaps Thursday. If an agreement can be ratified then, the pressure will be on to move quickly onto the House floor before the mid-January recess.

“The fact that two such giant pieces of legislation — each with a checkered-past and cause of considerable heartache — should suddenly converge at the Capitol’s doorstep is quite extraordinary.”


Agricultural Economy

Kelsey Gee and Jacob Bunge reported on the front page of Saturday’s Wall Street Journal that, “U.S. cattle prices jumped to a record Friday, setting up a fresh hit of sticker shock for consumers at the grocer’s meat counter.

Meatpackers this past week paid the highest cash prices on record for live, slaughter-ready cattle in the major producing states of Kansas, Nebraska and Texas. That led traders to bid up futures prices, which already had been rising as retailers increased beef purchases for the holidays and the meat industry grappled with tight cattle supplies after prolonged drought in parts of the U.S. Great Plains.

“Analysts said the higher cattle prices likely will be passed along to U.S. consumers in the next few months. That would boost fresh-beef prices at retail that surged to a record $5.014 a pound in November, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a 26% increase over five years ago.”

Also on Saturday, AP writer Betsy Blaney reported that, “After a dispiriting stretch of years, many Texas ranchers are optimistic as drought, expensive feed and other conditions that decimated their cattle herds start to loosen their grip. But rebuilding their herds will be neither cheap nor a short-term process, even in the nation’s top cattle-producing state.

Texas lost 15 percent of its cattle — or about 2 million animals — between January 2011 and January 2013, as ranchers sold them to out-of-state buyers or sent them to slaughter amid an unrelenting drought. That helped the size of the U.S. herd drop to 89.3 million head, the lowest level since the 1950s.”



DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton reported on Friday that, “USDA is ready to say that one corn variety and two soybean varieties resistant to the herbicide 2, 4-D should be deregulated for commercial use.

“Before that can happen, however, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service must open up a 45-day public comment period for people to review APHIS’ study of the environmental impacts of corn and soybean crops resistant to 2, 4-D.

“A petition by Dow AgroSciences seeks to deregulate the seed traits. If the petition is granted, APHIS would no longer require permits to grow or ship the seeds across the country.”

Mr. Clayton added that, “On Friday, APHIS released its 204-page draft Environmental Impact Statement on the impacts of deregulating the seeds, as required by law. The gist of the report is the seeds themselves would not pose a plant risk, but increased use of 2, 4-D could mean more weeds would be resistant to that herbicide in the future.”



Bernie Becker reported yesterday at The Hill’s Briefing Room Blog that, “Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Sunday said immigration reform legislation could quickly get through Congress, if Democrats are willing to meet Republicans ‘halfway’ on key issues.

“Paul, who voted against the broad Senate bill last year, said that the House is unlikely to pass a measure that has a path to citizenship, which was included in the Senate measure. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said that the House will take a more step-by-step approach to immigration policy.”

Keith Good

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