Washington Insider -- Friday

White House Wants USDA to Address Ag Runoff

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

Perdue's Confirmation Vote Scheduled After Lawmakers Return

The Senate will finally vote on USDA Secretary-nominee Sonny Perdue on April 24, the day the Senate returns from its two-week recess. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R., Ky., announced he cut a deal with his Democratic counterpart setting when the chamber will vote on former Georgia Governor Perdue's Cabinet nomination.

Perdue was first tapped on January 19, the day before President Trump's inauguration. The Senate will not be taking any procedural votes on the former governor. The one up-or-down vote the chamber is set to take will require 51 votes -- not 60.


Lighthizer Vote Delayed

As some observers expected, Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R., Utah, formally delayed a vote to confirm Robert Lighthizer as U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) because of the lack of a committee quorum.

"I hope we will be able to move on this matter shortly after the Senate returns from recess," Hatch said, adding that scheduling conflicts had prevented many members from attending the panel's executive session.

While garnering strong bipartisan support, Lighthizer's confirmation has been delayed by controversy over a waiver Democrats say he needs because of his past work representing foreign governments as a trade attorney. Hatch and the Trump administration have argued that a waiver is not necessary for him to serve as USTR.

Another hurdle is Democratic demands to move it in parallel with an unrelated miners benefits issue set to expire April 28, along with the continuing spending resolution that is now funding the government. An agreement is close that would attach both Lighthizer's waiver and the miners issue to an appropriations measure that must pass by April 28 to avoid a government shutdown.

Washington Insider: White House Wants USDA to Address Ag Runoff

Bloomberg is reporting this week that strong disagreements between USDA and EPA are far from unusual, and that even the routine fights have gotten to the point where they are prompting "legislators and industry leaders to question EPA pesticide use decisions" especially concerning the risks and benefits of agricultural chemicals, as well as other issues.

At least five times within the past 12 months, senior USDA officials have sent letters to the EPA containing sharp, detailed criticism of pesticide decisions. Some of these were written simply to get objections to a pesticide decision on the record. But in others, USDA was highly critical of the decision itself.

Now, if you can imagine it, these fights could get worse. Bloomberg is reporting that there is an effort within the White House to task USDA -- instead of the EPA -- with programs dealing with problems with "non-point" runoff from farms and ranches.

The conflict focuses on an internal White House memo that would zero out the $164.5 million that the EPA provided in fiscal year 2016 for states to use as grants to programs that help control non-point source pollution -- on the grounds that the activities proposed are duplicative. It then directs the EPA to "continue to coordinate with the USDA on targeting funding where appropriate to address non-point sources." It was written by EPA's acting chief financial officer and describes priorities for implementation for the fiscal year 2018 budget.

"Within the Office of Water's Clean Water Act-related programs, priority is to be given to functions required by statute and mirrors the overall goal of decreased federal involvement in local programs," the memo says.

Nonpoint source pollution arises not just from nutrient and sediment runoff on farms, but also from stormwater runoff and heavy metals, trash and fecal bacteria found in urban environments, according the EPA. Local use of the funds varies, but in some counties they help provide incentives for water quality improvements through improved management practices such as water and sediment control basins, project managers told Bloomberg.

EPA estimates that pollution from nonpoint sources remains the largest source of water quality impairment in the nation. Section 319 of the Clean Water Act authorizes grants to states and tribes for technical and financial assistance, education, training, technology transfer, demonstration projects and monitoring to assess the success of specific nonpoint source projects.

A Government Accountability Office report, issued in July 2016, found that 55 percent of the nonpoint pollution source grants were aimed at reducing agricultural runoff and 35 percent aimed at urban and stormwater runoff.

"Given that most of the waterbodies on the impaired waters list are impaired due to nonpoint source pollution, this funding source remains critical," Julia Anastasio, executive director and general counsel for the Association of Clean Water Administrators, told Bloomberg.

"The proposed elimination of this program will result in significant decreases to nutrient reduction programs resulting in more nitrogen and phosphorus entering water bodies because of the reduction in voluntary conservation programs," she argued.

The shift in program responsibility from EPA to USDA would be controversial. For example, a former EPA deputy administrator told Bloomberg that Congress directed that the funding under the 319 program go to states who need help implementing approved nonpoint source management plans, said Brent Fewell. He was the deputy assistant administrator for water under President George W. Bush.

"The budget, which calls Section 319 funding duplicative, I think misses the mark, as this is not a program that lawfully can be delegated to USDA," Fewell said. He is now the managing partner of a Washington-based Earth & Water Law Group. "USDA is a critical partner with EPA in reducing nonpoint source pollution, but USDA is not the agency Congress intended to oversee and carry out the 319 program."

Anastasio said she doubts whether Congress will agree with the Trump administration's budget request, "but given all the uncertainty with overall government spending, they may not be able to keep 319 at current levels."

Pollution from non-source points is an explosive ag issue, and the proposed EPA-USDA shift of responsibility likely will lead to yet another extended, bitter battle. It certainly is one producers should watch carefully in what promises to be a highly litigious year, Washington Insider believes.

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