Washington Insider -- Friday

Earmark Fight Resurfaces

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

Germany, France Rebuff US Bilateral Trade Deal Overtures

Overtures from U.S. officials made to Germany and France about the possibility of reaching bilateral trade agreements were quickly rejected, European Union (EU) sources told Bloomberg BNA this week.

EU countries can only strike joint trade deals -- negotiated as a bloc -- EU sources said, confirming previously published reports. Further, the U.S. contacts took place at "an unauthorized level," a source added.

The European Commission (EC) retains the exclusive right to negotiate trade agreements based on mandates established by the EU countries. Even as the UK prepares to leave the EU, it has vowed to abstain from engaging in trade negotiations with the U.S. or any other country while still an EU member.

"Very little from the U.S. surprises us these days," one EU source said of the American move. Some observers noted that it demonstrated a fundamental ignorance of how the EU works, but noted it might also be an attempt to divide and rule. "Of course it is easier for the United States to negotiate with Germany and France separately rather than with all 28 EU member states," one source observed.

The EU has to stay united and stand up for its values, the leader of the center-right EPP party group, Manfred Weber of Germany, said during the European Parliament's plenary debate Feb. 1 ahead of the Feb. 3 EU summit in Malta. "The U.S. is our closest ally. But Donald Trump wants Europe to be split and weak. So does Russian President Vladimir Putin," Weber argued.

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Final Food Safety Act Rules Could Linger: Acting FDA Head

Do not expect the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to finalize small-scale rules implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) anytime soon, the agency's acting head said. Still ahead are lab accreditation rules, traceability requirements for high-risk foods and changes to the reportable food registry.

"I can tell you that we are working on these, but we are not close to issuing draft rules in any of these areas," Acting FDA Commissioner Stephen Ostroff said during a presentation at the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture's Winter Policy Conference in Washington on February 1.

The FDA finalized the last of seven major rules implementing the FSMA in May 2016, that one governing food facility security. Several minor rules have yet to be completed, however.

The FDA must still craft rules that would unify standards for government and private laboratories performing regulatory food safety testing. FSMA also calls for expanded traceability requirements for high-risk foods. The agency will need to define high-risk foods, taking in factors like known risks for food-borne illness and contamination. The FDA has launched pilot projects to gather information on the issue and said it would hold three public meetings during the comment period on the future proposed rules.

The third rule would overhaul the reportable food registry. During certain food recalls, FSMA requires that the food maker give the FDA information like UPC codes, batch numbers and other product information to help consumers identify recalled items. Most food retailers would be required to provide the information to consumers at the point of sale in the form of a one-page summary.

Ostroff said that he planned to remain at the FDA after the Trump administration named a new agency head. Ostroff also said that given the long timeline for the three rules, it was unclear how President Donald Trump's recent executive order limiting new regulations would affect the FSMA rulemaking process. Trump signed an executive order January 31 that would require federal agencies cut two rules for every new one introduced. "I think we have some time to figure out how it fits into that executive order," Ostroff said.


Washington Insider: Earmark Fight Resurfaces

In the midst of the bitter political warfare over administration nominees, a number of other important battles are underway, although with less public notice. One of those concerns the time-honored but recently abandoned practice of budget earmarks.

When the Republicans took over the House in 2011, they banned earmarks in the name of good government and as a way to curb wasteful spending. Bloomberg is reporting this week that the leadership of the Republican Study Committee, House Freedom Caucus and their supporters at the Heritage Foundation and Citizens Against Government Waste still feel that way and are determined to drive a stake through the heart of earmarks.

At the same time, there is a significantly different view in some quarters. For example, just after the November election, Speaker Paul Ryan blocked an effort by his Republican colleagues to change House rules and resurrect spending earmarks. Lawmakers say they are still interested in rejoining the battle over whether they should be able to set aside money for projects in their districts.

At an anti-earmark event this week, Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, who oversees the Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill, told the group he wants to bring back a version of earmarking. He urged the Republican Study Committee, which has opposed these special projects, to work with him on a compromise.

He argued that, for example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could produce lists of projects using its expertise and Congress would have the power to approve or disapprove those projects, the Texas Republican said.

However, Culberson's suggestion was not embraced by the panel of his fellow lawmakers who argued that Democrats will regain the House if earmarks come back.

Culberson, along with fellow Republican Tom Rooney, Fla., had withdrawn proposals that would have brought back a version of earmarks during a November House Republican rules caucus meeting. That plan would have allowed a range of projects beyond the Army Corps proposals to feature directed spending.

Lawmakers "can develop a method to handle directed congressional spending in a way that gives constituents confidence that their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent effectively," Culbertson said in a statement at the time.

Back in November, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., halted the discussion of the proposals because he thought a majority of the House conference was on track to adopt them. Appropriators and their allies say Congress ceded its power of the purse to executive branch agencies when it eschewed earmarks. They believe that lawmakers, not unelected bureaucrats, know better what local communities need.

The availability of earmarks also provides appropriation committees with the power to horse trade for the passage of controversial budgets by allowing "sweeteners" that are popular back home—but extremely unpopular with budget hawks.

"You will lose control of the House of Representatives," Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., warned this week at the event on Capitol Hill organized by the RSC.

Retired Senator Tom Coburn, R-Okla., also blasted members of the House who want to bring back earmarks as tone deaf. Earmarks are a "gateway drug for overspending" because they persuade conservatives to vote for bloated spending bills that they would otherwise oppose, he said.

Representatives have been told that the earmark debate will come to a head by April, before House Appropriations subcommittees start working on the fiscal 2018 spending bills.

In the meantime, the speaker is following through on his commitment to examine this issue in a transparent and open process and has asked the Rules Committee to hold public hearings in the coming weeks, Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong told Bloomberg.

One thing is clear about this fight, it is seen as a high-stakes conflict by both sides. House members believe that the earmarks decision was a strong talking point with budget implications essential to win elections, while the appropriators see it as an important loss of power and a risk to their image as able managers that can get congressional business done.

So, the earmark debate may be one of the first in the war between populists who want major infrastructure and other projects and the budget hawks who feel strong pressures from several directions that could add debt—a struggle that could last for the next several years and beyond, and which should be watched closely by producers as it evolves, Washington Insider believes.


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