Washington Insider-- Monday

Senate GMO Label Bill Moves to House

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

House Leadership Commits to Move Long-Term Cuba Trade Legislation

Legislation to loosen restrictions on trade with Cuba was dropped from the financial services appropriations bill in exchange for a commitment from House leaders to move stand-alone legislation at a later date, according to Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., who offered the amendment.

Crawford's amendment to the financial services appropriations bill (HR 5485) would have allowed the offering of credit to Cuba to buy U.S. agriculture products. Current law prohibits credit for farm exports to Cuba, presenting the largest barrier U.S. producers face in accessing Cuba's market.

Instead of the appropriations route, Crawford said he received a strong commitment from House leadership and South Florida delegation members to "pursue a long-term solution that will open up agriculture trade permanently," according to a statement. Crawford also said he got assurances that the relevant committees will move Cuba ag trade legislation.

"We have agreed to work together to find a long-term solution that will work for our ag producers over time," he said during a conversation on the House floor.

The Crawford amendment would have barred funds from being used to implement, administer or enforce Trade Sanction Reform and Export Enhancement Act Section 902(b), which requires ag commodity sales to Cuba be carried out in cash. In the Senate, similar language, proposed by Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., was added to the Senate Fiscal 2017 financial services bill in committee.

A Crawford aide, who spoke on background, told Bloomberg BNA that a traditional stand-alone bill is the better route. A fight over the proposal would arise every year if the language was contained in the appropriations bill, the aide said.

The Cuba Agricultural Exports Act (HR 3687), sponsored by Crawford, proposes eliminating restrictions on providing credit for lending to Cubans, though it would keep a ban on lending to entities controlled by the Cuban government or its military. The aide said he expected a markup of the bill "later this year."

House Members Propose More Amendments Targeting EPA Funding

More than 150 amendments to a bill funding the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), including a measure to eliminate funding for EPA's Air, Climate and Energy Research Program, were submitted and posted on the House Rules Committee website after the submission window closed early July 7.

The committee will convene a hearing July 11 on the appropriations legislation. The bill is already weighed down by a range of controversial riders, but Republican lawmakers added additional measures despite nearly unanimous Democratic opposition.

The Appropriations Committee approved the bill (HR 5538) June 30 with just one Democrat voting in favor.

Republican lawmakers submitted amendments to bar funding for new requirements on offshore drilling and hydraulic fracturing, and prohibit offshore financial assurance rulemaking.

Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., proposed an amendment to bar funds for any administration proposal that lacking cost benefit analysis information. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., submitted a provision to ban regulatory actions of $100 million or more.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., offered an amendment to boost Forest Service wildfire prevention by redirecting "EPA bureaucracy funds" to the Forest Service's hazardous fuels account.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, proposed an amendment to move $10 million from the EPA environmental programs and management fund to the agency's inspector general.

Democrats also submitted a range of amendments, but prospects they will be approved on the House floor are slim.

Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., offered an amendment to strike bill language that takes aim at the EPA authority to regulate ozone-depleting substances under the Significant New Alternatives Policy. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., sponsored a measure to strike bill language to delay implementation of the EPA coal ash rule, a regulation finalized in 2015.

Washington Insider: Senate GMO Label Bill Moves to House

The Senate passed a bill late last week that directs USDA to create a national GMO label standard within two years. Food product producers can use text, symbols or QR codes that consumers can scan to find foods’ GMO content. The Senate bill also would prevent states from issuing their own mandatory GMO labeling laws.

The late-night vote came after Democrats ran out the procedural clock and blocked Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., from scheduling votes earlier Thursday. Though hailed as a bipartisan agreement in the national debate over GMO labeling, the legislation outraged many Democrats, The Hill said.

“The idea that people would need to walk around the grocery store scanning product codes just to find out what’s in the food they’re buying is ridiculous and unfair,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said while debating the bill on the floor Thursday. “Food companies should not be able to hide behind confusing coded labels that conceal their products’ ingredients.”

But Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., argued that QR codes are commonplace and easy to use. “So, for those who say this is some sort of weird code or outdated, I don't know about you all but that's not the world that I live in,” he said.

McConnell called the legislation a "compromise bill that would protect middle-class families from unnecessary and unfair higher food prices while also ensuring access to information about the food they purchase."

"It's the result of bipartisan work to address an issue that could negatively harm consumers and procedures," he added.

Before a procedural vote to advance the legislation Wednesday, Democrats criticized their colleagues across the aisle for rushing the bill to the floor for a vote. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said lawmakers should have had the opportunity to discuss the bill in committee first. “We owe it, as a body to the American people, to give this legislation proper consideration,” he said. “We should not stand for Republican leaders jamming this legislation through the Senate.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who backed a failed effort to pigeonhole the GMO bill, called it a "simple truth" that consumers should know what's in their food.

Democrats who voted for the legislation said they were doing so in line with scientific findings.

“I urge my colleagues to stop denying science and start understanding GMO ingredients are just as healthy for American consumers as any other ingredient,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the labeling debate is not over whether GMOs are safe or unsafe. “The labeling would not be in any way a warning to consumers,” he said. “It would be informational only. The debate here and the objective of this measure is to provide information as dispassionately, clearly and objectively as possible. That’s the goal.”

On Friday, DTN reported that House Ag Committee chair Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said he has sought clarification from ag secretary Tom Vilsack on what he called “problematic provisions” in the bill. “After spending the past week and a half studying the legislation and meeting with agricultural producers, along with a variety of other stakeholders, I have come to the conclusion that the Senate bill is riddled with ambiguity and affords the Secretary a concerning level of discretion,” Conaway said. He also said he would support the measure, “albeit with a heap of reservations.”

DTN political correspondent Jerry Hagstrom reported over the weekend that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has announced that the House will take up the bill setting up a federal program of labeling genetically modified foods before the chamber adjourns

Well, the Senate compromise seems to be progress, although USDA will certainly have a thankless and controversial task ahead. The Senate bill pleases no one, of course, as can be seen by the deferral to USDA to work out the details, including some prickly policy considerations as Conaway noted. And, it is true by now that the issue is somewhat beyond straightforward solution—there almost certainly will be some sort of label and specific questions of product coverage will need to be worked out, if not resolved.

So, the label fight may be winding down at long last—or, maybe it is just in remission. It will be important to see what approach USDA recommends, but that likely will wait until safely past the fall elections and beyond, Washington Insider believes.

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