Dispatches from the Hill | September 2015

Prepared for AGree by Stephanie Mercier, former chief economist for the Senate Agriculture Committee
Global Food Security Legislation

The House version of the GFSA bill, HR.1567, is still awaiting action by the full House. As of September 22, the bill has 80 total co-sponsors, 29 R's and 51 D's. The hope was to get the bill onto the House suspension calendar as a noncontroversial bill as was the case last fall, but the path through the House now appears to be a bit rockier than in 2014. NGO supporters of the legislation are hoping to boost the number of House co-sponsors over 100, in the hope that such a number will encourage the House Republican leadership to let the bill move on the suspension calendar once issues with the House Agriculture Committee are resolved.

The lead co-sponsors of the Senate companion bill, Senators Casey (D-PA) and Isakson (R-GA), introduced their version of the GFSA bill on May 7 (S.1252). There are now 6 additional co-sponsors, Senators Coons (D-DE), Collins (R-ME), Durbin (D-IL), Feinstein (D-CA), Boozman (R-AR), and Rubio (R-FL). There is some hope that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a mark-up on this bill in early October.

On September 10, the Global Ag Development Working Group coalition of U.S. farm and commodity groups, NGO's, and development program implementers, including AGree, sent a second letter to the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, Senate Foreign Relation Committee, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The letter identified the strengths of USDA, the land-grant university system, and the U.S. agricultural sector with respect to improving agricultural sectors in developing countries, and encouraged the Committees to codify in law the collaborative relationship between USAID and USDA in the Feed the Future initiative in the areas of agricultural research and extension, and to partner more closely with land-grant universities in the areas of human and institutional capacity building. The letter also suggested that U.S. agricultural and farm organizations be explicitly included in any stakeholder consultation process established under the Global Food Security Act.

Food Aid Issues

Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), plans to hold a hearing on U.S. food aid programs on September 30, and the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), plans to hold a hearing on U.S. food aid programs in early October. Since the two Chairs have diametrically different views about the merits of food aid reform (Conaway is at best skeptical about the modest reforms included in the 2014 farm bill), there could be some fireworks on the House side on this issue over the next few weeks.

The Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker (R, TN) is expected to hold a Committee mark-up of a food aid reform bill in early October. It is expected to be based on the Corker-Coons bill (S.525) introduced in February, but is likely to reflect some changes from the original legislation in an effort to win majority support from the Committee.

FY16 Agricultural Appropriations Process

The next fiscal year (2016) begins on October 1, and not a single appropriations bill out of the 12 needed has been enacted. A short term Continuing Resolution is expected to pass to provide funding to the federal government through December 11. It is unclear what the funding situation will look like after that.

Recent Trade Policy Developments

Negotiations held in July between trade ministers of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) countries failed to resolve all outstanding issues, although the stated goal of participants remains to complete the agreement by the end of 2015. Included among the key unresolved issues are several which deal with agricultural market access on products that are politically sensitive to specific countries. These products include rice in Japan, sugar and dairy products in the United States, and the supply-managed markets for eggs, dairy, and poultry products in Canada. Officials from the US and 11 Pacific Rim countries have been meeting since Saturday, September 26 in Atlanta, GA to negotiate final areas of contention in the TPP. Key areas of discussion are automotive rules-of-origin between the United States, Canada, Mexico and Japan; dairy market access between the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; and intellectual property protections for biologics. Current talks are attempting to cut down the number of issues that the US trade Representative and ministers from other countries will need to take up during the two day meeting on September 30 and October 1. As negotiations drag on, getting the TPP to a vote in the US becomes more complicated with Presidential politics and changes in House leadership.

On September 18, President Obama announced new rules that will allow U.S. firms engaging in sales of agricultural products or construction goods to Cuba to open accounts in Cuban banks and establish a physical presence in that country, such as purchasing or leasing office or warehouse space. A broader opening of U.S. commerce with Cuba will require Congressional action, as other categories of goods remain under embargoes established under law.

Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) Developments

Both Canada and Mexico have requested permission from the WTO to retaliate against the United States for its failure to bring their COOL rules into compliance, asserting that their producers have suffered $3 billion in losses on an annual basis as a result of COOL. Representatives of the U.S. government argued in a WTO arbitration hearing in mid-September that Canadian and Mexican claims of economic damages suffered as a result of the U.S. COOL law are grossly overstated, presenting their estimate that the actual harm is only $91 million. The ruling of the arbitration panel is due in late November.

Although the House passed a full repeal of the COOL law in July, the Senate has yet to act on such a bill. The Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), was able to attach an amendment repealing COOL to an unrelated transportation bill, but that bill is awaiting passage of the House version so that a conference committee can get to work. A bipartisan bill (S.1844) introduced by Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) would repeal the mandatory COOL provisions but set up a voluntary COOL program in its place. The government of Canada has objected to that approach, even though they have a similar system in their country.

GMO Labeling Laws

Although the House bill (HR.1599) that would pre-empt individual states from adopting GMO labeling laws passed the House in late July, no companion bill has yet been introduced in the Senate since the body returned from the month-long August recess. Senator John Hoeven (R- ND) has a bill ready to go, but reports indicate that he has been unable to secure a Democratic Senator willing to be a lead co-sponsor of a Senate version of the bill. The Senate Agriculture Committee recently announced a hearing on this subject for Thursday, October 1.

The Massachusetts legislature is contemplating a GMO labeling bill for this legislative term. Bill supporters are claiming a legislative majority has already lined up behind the bill. A public hearing was held on this legislation on September 22.

The Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals is due to hear oral arguments on the food industry's effort to derail implementation of the Vermont labeling law this fall, with a decision expected by the end of 2015. Some opponents of mandatory GMO labeling laws are asserting that a June 2015 Supreme Court case which invalidated signage restrictions placed by a town in Arizona (Reed v. Town of Gilbert) creates a strong precedent for their argument that rules on label contents that are based on process issues rather than health concerns violate First Amendment protections of free speech. The Vermont law is due to take effect on July 1, 2016, if not sidetracked.

Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization

There has been little or no movement on Child Nutrition Act legislation over the past few months, despite the fact that the authority for these programs technically expires at the end of September. Neither Committee with jurisdiction over the school lunch program and related programs has even released draft language for a bill, much less held a markup. For a time it looked as though the Senate Agriculture Committee would move forward, after the Chairman initially scheduled a markup for the bill on September 17. However, that session saw the reporting out of routine bills reauthorizing the Grain Standards Act and Mandatory Livestock Price Reporting program, while no Child Nutrition bill saw the light of day. Press reports indicate that negotiations in an effort to produce a bipartisan bill out of Committee are bogged down, in part over unresolved issues but also due to delays in receiving Congressional Budget Office scores for proposed policy changes.

Even less news has come out with respect to this legislation from the House Committee with responsibility for its reauthorization, the House Education and Workforce Committee. That Committee has been more focused on its conference committee work on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with their Senate counterparts, and on the announcement that the Committee's chair, Rep. John Kline (R-MN) would not run for re-election in 2016.

Failure to act before the existing law, the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, expires will not have serious consequences for the nation's school lunch program and other related programs, as they will continue to have funding regardless of Congressional action or inaction.

Action on USAID Administrator Stalled

Gayle Smith, a senior staffer on the National Security Council at the White House, was nominated in May to replace Dr. Rajiv Shah, who left as USAID Administrator in February. Her nomination was reported favorably out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in late July, but she has not yet received a vote by the full Senate on her confirmation. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) had earlier vowed to halt all State Department nominees because of the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the President. It is not clear if that hold will remain in place now that the 60-day window for Congress to disapprove the deal under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 has lapsed.

Several Democratic Senators have raised concerns about the delay in confirming Smith, especially given the important role of USAID in addressing the humanitarian crisis with refugees and displaced persons from conflicts in the Middle East and Africa.

New Executive Director Begins Job at Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research

Dr. Sally Rockey assumed her position at the new Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR) as of mid-September, delaying her departure from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for about three months to give her old agency time to search for her replacement. This position does not require Senate confirmation, as the Foundation is established under law as a non-profit corporation and is deemed not to be "an agency or instrumentality of the Federal government" (Section 7601 of the Agricultural Act of 2014).