Washington Insider -- Tuesday

Food Stamps and Politics ... Again

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

TTIP Negotiators Continue Discussions on Services

European Union and U.S. trade negotiators held a 10th round of Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations last week, but again faced differences in a number of areas including maritime and aviation issues.

Ocean shipping between U.S. ports has been governed for years by the U.S. Jones Act, formally called the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. This law requires that freight or passengers moved from one U.S. port to another (also known as coastal shipping or cabotage) be carried on U.S.-flag ships, constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens and crewed by U.S. citizens. These requirements add greatly to the cost of shipping between U.S. ports, a cost that would likely be reduced if other countries were able to compete for the business, a step that several EU nations would like the United States to take.

The EU also is urging that TTIP include similar provisions for its airlines since the current EU-U.S. Open Skies Agreement does not include cabotage rights for those carriers. EU negotiators point out that some U.S. airlines already have the right to fly from one EU country to another.

Agricultural issues generally are seen as the most contentious when it comes to free-trade agreements. But transportation, shipping, patents, regulatory convergence and financial services also are major issues that negotiators will need to address as they strive to complete the agreement by the end of next year.

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Naval Academy May be Threatened by Rising Tides

A rising tide may lift all ships, but it someday may sink the U.S. Naval Academy.

The academy's superintendent says the Navy is concerned that rising sea levels predicted to occur with greater frequency by the middle of the century will produce tidal surges that could threaten to inundate the academy. As a result, says Vice Adm. Walter Carter Jr., the academy has established a committee to better prepare for tidal surges and is working to erect flood walls, berms and other bulwarks against such flooding as well as severe storms.

During a House Energy and Commerce Committee field hearing at the academy in Annapolis, Maryland, last week, Carter testified that the campus has integrated flood walls into the construction of major new projects, partly to protect existing buildings, most of which are more than 100 years old. He also said the academy has spent $120 million since 2003 when Hurricane Isabel struck the academy to ensure that its buildings and other infrastructure "can handle rising waters and major events." Nevertheless, Carter added, "We're the Navy, we operate and live at sea level" and if sea level rises, at least some of the academy's buildings cannot be protected indefinitely.

It seems that some parts of the government are preparing for a future in which climate change plays a greater role in day-to-day activities, even as some in Congress continue to question whether climate change is a reality. According to Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., who chaired the hearing, "We have to stop thinking about climate change as a partisan issue because it is impacting us all, regardless of political ideology."

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Washington Insider: Food Stamps and Politics ... Again

For decades, a network of political support for farm programs relied on advocates of nutrition programs and conservation to provide crucial votes. However, as the Congress has become increasingly politicized and polarized, the nutrition programs, especially, have become the focus of opposition of many Republican groups and the farm bill coalition was more than a little frayed during the last debate. That may be happening once again.

Recently, Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed a state law that would impose screening and drug tests on childless, able-bodied adults who want food stamps -- now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance -- in spite of the fact that USDA has long maintained that federal law doesn't allow states to drug test SNAP, beneficiaries.

To get around the restriction, the new Wisconsin law redefined food stamp beneficiaries as "welfare recipients," since the federal government does allow drug testing of some people on welfare. The Walker administration then sued USDA in federal court to settle the matter.

As you can imagine, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was not pleased. He told the press last week that Walker "is making a big mistake with his lawsuit," and that "Gov. Walker hasn't read the law." Vilsack told The Huffington Post, "It's always a good idea before you start litigation to understand what the law is."

"The law that authorizes and approves drug testing is for people who are receiving cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program," Vilsack asserted.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, broadly called "welfare reform," created the TANF program. It also tweaked some parts of SNAP with a provision allowing states to conduct some drug testing of "welfare recipients" though the provision has long been understood to apply to people on TANF, not to people on SNAP, observers say.

In 2013, Republicans in Congress tried to change federal law to explicitly allow states to conduct food stamp drug testing, but Democrats beat back the proposal.

"There is a clear distinction in the law between welfare recipients and public benefit recipients, and the distinction is important as it relates to the ability to drug test or provide additional burdens" on people seeking benefits, Vilsack said.

Vilsack wondered whether Walker, who announced his presidential candidacy last week, was more interested in fighting poverty in Wisconsin or winning over Republican primary voters in Iowa.

"You just wonder whether this is real or it's politics," Vilsack said. "If it's real, it's unfortunate. If it's politics, it's even more so."

Roughly 46 million Americans receive SNAP benefits; TANF, by contrast, only serves about 4 million people, mostly single moms and their children. Returning the political spotlight to either, or both, is regarded as unwelcome to many who see a still new farm Act that is already being criticized for its increased revenue insurance risk management subsidies, potential for rising costs and lack of focus on trade -- as well as a political environment that is questioning the role and consequences of renewable fuel mandates.

Given the clout of budget hawks in this Congress, it probably was inevitable that the expensive nutrition programs would return to center stage. What this might mean for future farm programs remains to be seen, but should be watched carefully by producers, Washington Insider believes.


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(GH/CZ)