Washington Insider -- Thursday

Ag and Farm Bill Politics

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

Trump Hints He Could Name Wheeler to Permanently Head EPA

President Donald Trump this week indicated he could nominate acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to permanently head the agency.

"He is acting, but he is doing well, right? So maybe he won't be so acting for so long," Trump said at the White House's State Leadership Day Conference.

Those serving in acting roles typically are limited to 210 days in the post.

If Trump were to name Wheeler to the top post, the attention would quickly shift to who would be tapped to be the deputy administrator, the position Wheeler held before being named to his current acting role.

Grassley Says SNAP Work Requirement Will Not Make it in Senate

Progress is being made on a new farm bill, but Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has added his name to the list of those who think that the work requirements for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) proposed by the House are still complicating the situation.

"I cannot be for it because we can never get 60 votes in the United States Senate to get a bill requiring food stamp recipients to work so until the House backs down," Grassley said at a meeting in Indianola, Iowa, Tuesday.

"I do not think we are going to have a five year farm bill by early December." If that cannot happen, Grassley then indicated "we are going to have to extend the 2014 farm bill for one more year."

Washington Insider: Ag and Farm Bill Politics

Well, to nobody's surprise, farm policies are being mentioned frequently on the national campaign trail, POLITICO said this week. Also no surprise -- it's complicated.

For starters, the report said that the President is eager to celebrate the new trade deal with Canadian and Mexican officials ahead of the midterms -- but that the steel and aluminum tariffs "remain a roadblock."

And POLITICO has not been bashful in its comments on the debate on the nutrition programs. It said that "Secretary Sonny Perdue still thinks that 'America's Harvest Box' is a good idea -- and that he is on board with the President's directive to cut federal spending by 5%, or more."

The report noted that Vice President Pence has been in Kansas and Iowa and is bringing up the farm bill during stump speeches. The White House message is similar to that of House Republicans -- that the unemployment rate is low and there are a lot of job openings across America, "so Democrats should get on board with more work requirements for millions of food-stamp recipients."

POLITICO noted that the House farm bill would significantly expand the pool of able-bodied adult recipients who would be required to work an average of 20 hours per week, a concept that's been called "politically dead on arrival in the Senate." But the White House wants to ensure House Democrats don't get "a pass" for voting no on the nutrition program changes proposed for the House farm bill, Pro Ag reported last week.

On the Senate side, the political heat will likely be directed at Agriculture ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D- Mich., as well as more vulnerable senators up for reelection like Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., for stalling negotiations -- even though Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has objected to the House's SNAP proposal. He asserts it can't clear a 60-vote hurdle.

Secretary Perdue argued that USDA doesn't want to preempt Congress on the nutrition issue and that he doesn't plan to join Pence on the campaign trail to talk about the farm bill. However, Perdue said he will would continue to speak out in favor of stricter work requirements, as he has for the past several months.

USDA actually has a proposal to tighten work requirements on able-bodied adults already under review at OMB, POLITICO said. Still, Perdue continued to tell reporters that he "doesn't want to get ahead of Congress on the issue, creating some uncertainty about when the department will release the rule."

Secretary Perdue also is continuing to push hard on budget cuts and told reporters last week that "he plans to heed Trump's directive to slash federal spending by 5%, or more. He thinks USDA can find 'even greater savings than that.'"

The president's call to action follows a Treasury Department report on the budget shortfall for fiscal 2018, which totaled $776 billion -- 17% higher than the previous year -- driven in large part by a decline in corporate tax revenue following the Republican tax overhaul, POLITICO said.

POLITICO and others in the media have been fascinated by the administration's earlier push for "America's Harvest Box" and Secretary Perdue wants that idea to be given a more serious trial. He said he thinks "it's a great idea. We think [SNAP participants] can have fresh fruits and vegetables and a good value meal cheaper than we're providing it now."

The plan would give SNAP participants half of their benefits in the form of a box of government-selected food, such as peanut butter, "shelf-stable" milk and canned fruits and vegetables. Critics argue that the approach harks back to the old "direct distribution" programs that offered mainly surplus commodities and were criticized for their inefficiency and lack of food choices. Perdue asked, "Why not a pilot? I would love for Congress to trust us with a pilot project. They've got pilots for everything else. At least give us a chance to demonstrate the efficacy of that program."

So, we will see. Certainly, the administration's "get tough" trade policies and the negative impacts of retaliations by trading partners on producers are a hot political topic, and likely will lead to difficult questions for the administration campaigners. The administration still claims it has broad support for its trade fight and that may continue to be the case. This debate is critical for producers and should be watched closely as it evolves, Washington Insider said.

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