Agri-Pulse logo 0118 2019 (copy)

With the focus on the government shutdown, there hasn’t been a lot of attention paid to what should be a very busy agenda for the 116th Congress.

Indeed, lawmakers must find a resolution to the government shutdown that hit USDA, the Interior Department and other departments and agencies that don't have their fiscal 2019 spending allocations yet.

Once beyond the shutdown, lawmakers will face a deadline by this summer for increasing the debt ceiling, and they need to agree on budget caps for fiscal 2020 so House and Senate appropriators can start writing new agency spending bills. In addition, you can expect a lot of discussion about climate change, health care, trade and infrastructure.

Finding agreement on any of these issues won’t be easy, given the divided Congress. Democrats are in charge of the House with a 235-199 majority. They plan to quickly initiate a series of investigations of administration decisions and actions. Republicans, meanwhile, will tighten their control on the Senate by increasing their majority from 51 to 53 seats.

The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, signaled to USDA that he plans to keep close watch on how the 2018 farm bill is implemented, though he hasn’t singled out a particular program he is concerned about. Peterson chaired the committee when the 2008 farm bill was written and says that USDA sometimes failed to implement it the way Congress intended.

Peterson also plans to put a spotlight on the use of permanent easements in conservation programs. He has long been concerned that landowners under financial pressure have put acreage in permanent easements, tying the hands of later generations. Public access to land in permanent easements also has been an issue for him.

“I am going to expose some things going on in this easement stuff that I think (is) wrong,” Peterson said in an Agri-Pulse Open Mic interview.

In the Appropriations Committee, House Democrats will try to do what they can to stop Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue from moving the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, led by Bishop, will likely take the lead in fighting the relocations.

Bishop and Democratic colleagues on that panel as well as the House Agriculture Committee introduced a bill last month to block the moves. The bill is intended to send a message to the administration about Democratic opposition to the plan. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who will be House majority leader in the new Congress, also is a cosponsor.

The battle could come down to whether Bishop and his House allies can muster enough Republicans support to use USDA’s fiscal year 2020 spending bill to prevent Perdue from carrying out the agency moves. Congressional hearings will be part of the Democratic strategy. “Hearings would give a forum for (opponents of the relocations) to bring forth their concerns,” Bishop said.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump wants Congress to approve his revisions to the new North American Free Trade Agreement.

A great deal of fanfare was made when the presidents of all three NAFTA countries signed the revamped and renamed trade pact on the sidelines of a G20 meeting in Buenos Aires last year, but ratification of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement is far from assured because legislatures in all three countries will have to approve the pact.

Nancy Pelosi, who is expected to be elected House speaker, has conditioned House action on the deal on Mexico enacting tougher labor standards. And Trump’s refusal to drop trade tariffs on Mexico and Canada presents a major barrier.

Those “section 232” tariffs on steel and aluminum go beyond just angering Mexico and Canada. The retaliatory tariffs – aimed mainly at U.S. agricultural commodities – nullify many of the benefits the three-nation trade deal provides, say analysts and lawmakers.

“As long as Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada and Mexico remain, U.S. farmers and others facing retaliation, along with the American businesses that rely on those imports, will be unable to realize the full potential benefits of USMCA,” said the incoming chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley.

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