Washington Insider -- Wednesday

Groups Say Stick With Senate Farm Bill or Extend Current Law

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

USMCA Vote Won't Happen Yet This Year

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R., Ky., has put to rest speculation that the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) could be voted on yet this year, indicating that there isn't enough time for the steps to be completed relative to getting the pact through Congress.

"That will be a next year issue because the process we have to go through doesn't allow that to come up before the end of this year," he told Bloomberg in an interview Tuesday.

Some lawmakers had signaled they hoped a vote on the package could be done yet this year, perhaps in a lame-duck session of Congress. But McConnell's statement fits with what most trade experts have agreed -- a vote on the USMCA will be something that will take place in 2019.

ITC Timeline in USMCA Assessment

The U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) has laid out the timeline related to its assessment of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) that is required under Trade Promotion Authority (TPA).

The U.S. Trade Representative submitted a request to USITC on Aug. 31 and the agency has instituted its investigation as required by law. "The report will assess the likely impact of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) on the U.S. economy as a whole, on selected industry sectors, and on U.S. consumer interests."

The agency outlined the following dates relative to that investigation:

Oct. 29, 2018: Deadline for filing requests to appear at the public hearing.

Oct. 30, 2018: Deadline for filing prehearing briefs and statements.

Nov. 15, 2018, and continuing on Nov. 16, 2018 if necessary: Public hearing.

Nov. 23, 2018: Deadline for filing post-hearing briefs.

Dec. 20, 2018: Written submissions from the public.

Transmittal of Commission report to the President and Congress: No later than 105 days after the President enters into the agreement.

Washington Insider: Groups Say Stick With Senate Farm Bill or Extend Current Law

Roll Call is reporting this week that numerous current farm programs are on track to "turn into pumpkins if Congress doesn't act." And as the fight intensifies, Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R., Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D., Mich., are pointing to the bill that passed the Senate by an 86-11 vote.

They argue that unless key farm bill negotiators use the Senate version as the template for a new bill, an extension of the now expired 2014 Farm Bill would be better than using the House farm bill as the basis for a conference report, representatives from nutrition, environmental, small farmer and food policy groups said Monday.

The organizations told the press that the House and Senate farm bills differ sharply in important areas. While they want a new bill to replace the farm law that expired on Sept. 30, the organizations said they represent a broad coalition that would oppose a bill based on the House farm bill version, which calls for changes, including to farm payments and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The Environmental Working Group, Food Policy Action, Food Research and Action Center, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council and Union of Concerned Scientists have said relying on an old bill is better than one that borrows heavily from a House farm bill that squeaked through on a 213-211 vote with no Democratic support.

The organizations have an interest in the farm bill and champion issues that Democrats and some Republicans are sympathetic to.

"The Senate bill is a hard-fought compromise. They made it across the finish line in historic numbers," said Ferd Hoefner, adviser for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, referring to the legislation that passed the Senate handily. "What could be clearer that this is the path forward and the only path forward."

The organizations said they back the Senate bill's provisions to tighten rules on who is eligible for subsidies, and which impose a means test for subsidies at a lower adjusted gross income.

Erik D. Olson, senior health and food director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he and other groups want the Conservation Stewardship Program to continue. However, he said there are larger concerns such as riders that would allow the EPA to approve pesticides without consulting with the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service about possible effects on ecosystems. The agencies oversee the Endangered Species Act.

"I think there is a very real concern that there will be pressure to allow some of these riders," Olson said, but he said he thinks a final bill with a provision like the pesticide language would not pass the Senate.

Monica Mills, executive director of the Food Policy Action, said the bottom line for the organizations is that "movements to include compromises that are in the House bill are things none of us at this table are willing to accept. If it goes in that direction, no farm bill is better than a bad farm bill." The group promotes policies for healthy nutritional diets and efforts to reduce hunger in the United States and abroad.

Senate and House Agriculture Committee staffers continue to work on proposals for a compromise bill that would be reviewed by Sens. Roberts and Stabenow, and House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R., Texas, and Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D., Minn. The four principal negotiators have said they will stay in touch by phone since both chambers are in recess until after the midterm elections.

Proposals concerning Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) rules remains a main obstacle. The House bill would expand work requirements, tighten eligibility requirements and change calculations of monthly benefits for low-income people receiving food aid.

The Senate farm bill would tighten accountability for states running SNAP programs and expand pilot programs designed to improve the effectiveness of state work programs.

A House provision would allow farmers to update the yields used in calculating subsidy payments from the Price Loss Coverage program if their counties were designated as exceptional drought counties for at least 20 weeks between 2008 and 2012.

The language would benefit many counties in Texas, western Louisiana, western Oklahoma, western Kansas, western Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and some counties in New Mexico and Arizona, according to a study released jointly by agricultural economists at Ohio State University and University of Illinois. Other counties that would benefit are in middle Georgia extending down into Alabama and up into South and North Carolina.

Past farm bills have allowed farmers nationally to update yields. The language is viewed as largely benefiting cotton farmers, particularly those in west Texas, said Scott Faber, government affairs vice president of Environmental Working Group. Faber said another House provision would end subsidy payments to farmers on certain types of acres, which would affect other parts of the country, including Kansas and the Dakotas.

The money saved from ending those payments would be used to cover the additional spending on the updated yields, Faber said.

It seems from the current threats that there remains a considerable amount of work to develop a bill both sides of the conference will support. It seems early in this farm bill fight for support groups to lay down solid threats to achieve or kill particular programs, but some of the current fights have long been viewed as potential hurdles for the overall bill. However, regional fights about benefits are especially difficult as are efforts to redefine the nutrition programs. So, these are fights producers should watch closely as they proceed, Washington Insider believes.

Want to keep up with events in Washington and elsewhere throughout the day? See DTN Top Stories, our frequently updated summary of news developments of interest to producers. You can find DTN Top Stories in DTN Ag News, which is on the Main Menu on classic DTN products and on the News and Analysis Menu of DTN's Professional and Producer products. DTN Top Stories is also on the home page and news home page of online.dtn.com. Subscribers of MyDTN.com should check out the US Ag Policy, US Farm Bill and DTN Ag News sections on their News Homepage.

If you have questions for DTN Washington Insider, please email edit@dtn.com