Washington Insider-- Friday

Stimulus Fights Intensify

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

FCMSA Unveils HOS Ag Commodity, Livestock Definition Rule

An interim final rule clarifying agricultural commodity and livestock definitions in hours-of-service (HOS) regulations was unveiled Thursday (November 19) by the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

The rule has not yet been scheduled for publication in the Federal Register.

During state-defined harvesting and planting seasons haulers transporting agricultural commodities, including livestock, are exempt from the HOS requirements from the source of the commodities to a location within a 150-air-mile radius from the source. However, amid indications the definition of “agricultural commodities” was not well understood or enforced consistently relative to the HOS exemption, FCMSA began a rulemaking to clarify the term in July 2019.

The interim final rule defines the terms “any agricultural commodity,” “livestock,” and “non-processed food” as used in the definition of agricultural commodity under HOS regulations.

“The agriculture industry is vital to our nation, and this new rule will provide clarity and offer additional flexibility to farmers and commercial drivers, while maintaining the highest level of safety,” said US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue thanked DOT for working with his department “to come up with common sense definitions for agricultural commodities and livestock that meet both the needs of agricultural haulers and public safety – critical concerns for all of trucking.”

The interim final rule will take effect 15 days after publication in the Federal Register and comments will be accepted for 30 days following publication.

House Bill Would Require EPA To Act On Biofuels Applications

A House bill that would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to act on outstanding Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) biofuel pathway applications was introduced by Reps. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., and Jim Hagedorn, R-Minn.

The legislation, titled the Streamlining Advanced Biofuels Registration Act, would also compel the agency to accept biofuel applications if, after 90 days, the fuel could participate in at least one state's clean transportation program.

The RFS requires energy producers to utilize low-carbon, renewable fuels such as cellulosic biomass, but EPA must approve applications on behalf of biofuels producers and has refused to act on dozens of applications, Hagedorn and Bustos said.

The changes included in the bill will help lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by easing the regulatory burden for producers using cellulosic biomass to produce renewable fuel, the lawmakers said. “By cutting red tape and ensuring that producers receive a timely response from the EPA, we can encourage the use of cellulosic biomass in low-carbon, renewable fuel production and continue to create cleaner, more environmentally-friendly fuels,” Bustos said.

“By forcing the EPA to make timely decisions on these applications, we are opening new markets that will power southern Minnesota communities and the nation's economy. I'm extremely pleased to work in bipartisan fashion with Congresswoman Bustos on this important initiative,” Hagedorn said.

Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., have introduced companion legislation in the Senate.

Washington Insider: Stimulus Fights Intensify

There is plenty to fight about now as the nation works to move forward in its transition to a new government amid a growing coronavirus outbreak. At the same time, Bloomberg is reporting that President Trump's chief of staff is moving to “put the onus on Congress” as the White House retreats on proposed stimulus packages.

Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, once a lead negotiator working on a new coronavirus stimulus package, is now proclaiming that it's up to Congress to proceed with any talks, even though the issue has been a “priority” for the president.

“Obviously those discussions — if they happen — will be dictated by the House and the Senate,” Meadows told reporters when asked about the negotiations after a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “We haven't seen a real willingness by our House colleagues to look at that.”

Meadow's comments came a day after House Speaker Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer D-N.Y., urged McConnell to engage in talks. McConnell then “ridiculed” the $2.4 trillion Democratic measure that Pelosi and Schumer say must be the starting point for stimulus talks. “The problem is that their proposal is a multitrillion-dollar laughingstock” that “never had a chance of becoming law,” McConnell said.

McConnell reiterated his demand that any package be “targeted” and around $500 billion. He hadn't yet replied to the Pelosi—Schumer letter by mid-day Thursday, Bloomberg said but Senate Democrats upped the ante by introducing a new proposal to provide $10 billion for personal protection equipment in the next package, another sign of how far apart the two sides remain.

The comments came as numerous press reports are highlighting new lockdowns and anticipate new months-long survival tests until Covid-19 vaccines become widely available. More than 1 million US virus cases were reported in the recent week, leading states including Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, and California to set tighter rules on movement and commerce, Bloomberg said. A wide swath of businesses — restaurants, hotels, retail shops, bowling alleys and theaters — will confront a devastating winter, if they are able to remain open at all. Many workers face the holidays with food and shelter in doubt.

“I'm looking for a sign of life,” said Jon Forman, founder and president of Cleveland Cinemas, an operator of four independent theaters in the metropolitan area that dismissed 90% of the staff. “We will not stay open through thick and thin.”

Senior citizens in long-term care have faced the worst of the pandemic, with no signs of stopping. States last week reported more than 29,000 new Covid-19 cases in places such as nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Counts rose about 17% week over week, the steepest acceleration since May, when the COVID Tracking Project began tallying the data. Under 1% of the US population lives in such homes, but COVID fatalities there account for 40% of the national death toll, Bloomberg said.

In addition, the New York Times reported that the US Treasury Department's Office of Financial Research (OFR) warned on Wednesday that there were “significant downside risks” to the nation's overall financial stability from the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic and predicted that many households and businesses might be unable to recover without additional government assistance.

In its annual report to Congress, the OFR detailed the gravity of the threat that the financial system faced earlier this year as businesses were shut down across the United States and officials imposed stay-at-home orders around much of the country. The OFR praised government efforts to support the economy but suggested that substantial uncertainty remains because of the unpredictable path of the virus.

“Due to the novelty of the virus, the unknowns of its course and the response of health policy, many businesses are unsure when or even if they will resume normal operations and what new safeguards they must erect,” the report said. “Such uncertainty can weigh heavily on economic activity.”

The OFR was created out of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 and is a bureau within the Treasury Department. The report said that the “considerable” monetary and fiscal stimulus implemented earlier this year did serve as a bridge to an economic recovery, but that macroeconomic risk still remains “unusually high.”

Credit risk remains one of the biggest concerns, as lenders to the commercial real estate, energy and “high touch” sectors face big losses from defaults and bankruptcies. Meanwhile, a return to elevated valuations for risky assets could lead to another round of market stress despite efforts by the Federal Reserve to stabilize markets earlier this year.

The OFR noted that the federal debt is a long-term risk but suggested that there were more immediate concerns facing the economy. “Many households and businesses may be unable to recover absent additional government support,” the report said.

So, we will see. Pressure clearly is growing for the federal government to provide new stimuli, but concerns are also associated with some of the conventional approaches proposed. The intensity of the new, more recent outbreaks adds uncertainty to the outlook, as does the real time schedule for vaccine relief. These fights are likely to be prolonged and increasingly controversial and should be watched closely as they proceed, Washington Insider believes.

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