Washington Insider-- Friday

Senate Ag Leadership Likely Holds Pat

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Transportation and Infrastructure Priorities for New President, Congress

Transportation and infrastructure issues are among the priorities likely to be addressed by President-elect Donald Trump and the new Congress after they take office next year.

Several House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members are retiring but current Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and ranking member Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., are expected to return to their spots in the 115th Congress.

The committee's priorities are likely to remain the same, Jack Schenendorf, former House Transportation Committee chief of staff, told Bloomberg BNA. He also said the House transportation panel was one of many that could spend time weighing the next administration's tax overhaul for infrastructure investment plans.

There still will be some significant changes in the makeup of key transportation and infrastructure-related subcommittees. Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, who is at the end of his six-year term limit, will step down as chairman of the water resources and environment subpanel. Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., the current ranking member on the water resources subcommittee, is expected to return. Meanwhile, former committee chairman, and current member Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., will not be returning, after losing his reelection bid to Democratic newcomer Stephanie Murphy.

Several members will retire at the end of this Congress, including Republican Reps. Richard Hanna of N.Y., Candice Miller of Michigan, and Reid Ribble of Wisconsin On the Democratic side, House Ports Caucus cofounder Rep. Janice Hahn of Calif., gave up her seat in a bid to join the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California is pushing to replace her and plans to focus on freight funding issues.

Among those likely to remain on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is railroad subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham, R-Calif. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., a member of the aviation and economic development subpanels will also be back after winning a tough reelection fight.

With the GOP holding on to the House and Senate and taking the White House, it seems more than likely that Congress will attempt to gut the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) controversial waters of the U.S. rule (WOTUS), which is currently facing nearly a dozen challenges in federal appeals and district courts across the nation.

Meanwhile, the new administration has indicated an interest in moving forward with a significant infrastructure package, Patricia Sinicropi, senior director for legislative affairs at the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, told Bloomberg BNA.

Among other potential committee priorities is oversight of the implementation of a five-year surface transportation reauthorization known as the FAST Act, which was enacted late last year.

Consideration of any infrastructure proposals released by the next administration is also expected. President-elect Trump has laid out plans to pursue a $1 trillion infrastructure plan within the first 100 days of his presidency that would give private investors tax breaks for lending money to states and municipalities for projects.

USDA: Net Exports of Red Meat & Poultry to Rise in 2016, 2017

USDA forecasts for net exports (exports minus imports) of U.S. red meat and poultry in 2016 and 2017 show successive increases, largely due to higher beef production and expectations of solid growth in poultry exports, according to the Economic Research Service (ERS).

U.S. beef exports are expected to increase by almost 9% in 2016 and by almost 7% in 2017, as the beef sector recovers from a multi-year drought in major beef-producing States and US production increases.

Meanwhile, U.S. beef imports are forecast to decline by about 10% in 2016 and 11% in 2017, as supplies in Oceania tighten with herd rebuilding and larger supplies of US beef become available at lower prices.

U.S. net poultry exports (broiler meat and turkey) are forecast to increase in both 2016 and 2017 reflecting higher production, lower prices, and strong foreign demand for relatively low-priced meat protein. In total, U.S. net exports of red meat and poultry are expected to be 10.3 billion pounds in 2016 and 11.5 billion pounds in 2017.

Washington Insider: Senate Ag Leadership Likely Stays Pat

Now that the election is behind us, sort of, public guessing is turning to congressional leadership and possible personalities who may hold important positions. Bloomberg is reporting this week that with Republicans retaining hold of the Senate, Pat Roberts, R-Kan. is likely to stay on as chairman of the ag committee and be in position to lead the next farm bill debate in the upper chamber.

Neither Roberts nor the current ranking member, Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., was up for re-election, and other committee members won and retained their seats. That included Sen. Patrick Leahy D-Vt., who cruised to re-election and will retain his spot as the most senior member on the panel and in the U.S. Senate. Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Michael Bennet, D-Colo., John Thune, R-S.D., and John Hoeven, R-N.D. won re-election bids as well.

The remaining senators on the panel were not up for re-election and no ag committee senator has announced retirements following this session.

Bloomberg says that Roberts is positioned to lead the Senate in its work on the 2018 bill as the agriculture economy continues to face lower commodity prices. Bloomberg also says that farm groups are advocating early hearings.

“I think we are going to continue to see pressure for the committee to start talking about the farm bill sooner rather than later,” Barbara Patterson, government relations director for the National Farmers Union, told Bloomberg. “The pressure on the farm economy is continuing to build and our members are saying the farm bill work should start early and that it should pass on time.”

Roberts has been a stalwart champion of crop insurance and has pledged to defend those programs against “any cuts” Bloomberg says.

Bloomberg also says Sen. Stabenow has helped set the stage for at least one farm bill priority as well. In September she released details of legislation that would open up farm credit and aid programs to the operators of rooftop gardens, indoor farming operations and other urban agriculture projects. The move is seen as one of the first legislative proposals for the 2018 bill.

As for subcommittee positions, it's likely that most chairmen will retain their positions, as well.

The ag committee also looks forward to its role in approving the new political choices for Agriculture secretary and for the just over one dozen “political” appointees for USDA. The President-elect already has a large roster to choose from, assuming he starts, at least, with the more-than 60-person panel who advised him on farm policy.

That group is led by Charles Herbster, a Nebraska cattle rancher and long-time Republican backer.

Senate staffers told Bloomberg that confirming a new agriculture Secretary is likely to be less contentious than other top government posts because USDA heads tend to have significant bipartisan energy behind them. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is seen by the committee staff as having “set a very good precedent.” However, it is important to note that government itself has been a target of heavy criticism in the recent election campaign, especially its trade policies and programs, and that area a number of key posts in agriculture including the secretary have prominent roles trade policy definition and implementation.

The full Senate also has two Commodity Futures Trading Commission nominees pending. The Agriculture Committee approved the nominations for Brian Quintenz and Christopher Brummer in September and their nominations were placed on the Senate executive calendar, though the chamber has yet to vote on them.

There were numerous complaints heard across the ag community during the campaign that ag and farm issues had not been prominent in the debate. While there seems to be some disagreement over what the President-elect thinks of the agricultural programs, he was quite clear about what he thinks about the Washington “swamp” and what he intends to do about that.

So, we will see. The President is getting advice from a large group of experts with deep roots in rural and agricultural affairs, as well as the current programs. It seems clear that federal policies will feel the winds of change, along with many other programs. And, while prospects for Sen. Stabenow’s urban gardens may be less favorable than for Sen. Roberts’ crop insurance proposals, the details and potential outcomes of those debates are unclear at best, Washington Insider believes.

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