The chairmen of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees detailed some of their priorities Tuesday in speeches before the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, discussed a wide range of issues. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., used most of his speech to explain where he thinks the nation stands politically.
Conaway noted Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will testify before the House Agriculture Committee on Feb. 11 and Commodity Futures Trading Commission Chairman Timothy Massad will testify before the committee on Feb. 12.
Trade Representative Michael Froman also will brief the House Agriculture Committee on trade issues, including trade promotion authority, Conaway said. He told the nation’s agriculture commissioners the briefing would take place, and then later told reporters that a briefing for the full committee was needed because there are so many new members. The briefing will be closed to the public.
Conaway also said he hopes the House Budget Committee — should it undertake budget reconciliation — gives the Agriculture Committee a dollar figure to cut from the programs under the committee’s jurisdiction without any instructions on what to cut.
Conaway declined to say whether he would take any cut entirely from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the biggest program at USDA, which accounts for about 70% of USDA spending.
Conaway said President Barack Obama’s budget proposal, which includes a cut to the crop insurance program, has no chance of being approved by Congress, but did not rule out a cut to crop insurance in reconciliation.
He said the committee “will be as fair as we can” to all programs under the administration’s jurisdiction.
“Right now we don’t have to cut anything,” Conaway added.
Conaway also talked about the potential of a 2018 farm bill. Agriculture interests need to form a new rural-urban coalition that is not dependent on votes for the SNAP before a new farm bill comes up for consideration.
He explained his view that the coalition of urban interests supporting SNAP (commonly known as food stamps) and the farm community had worked in the past because SNAP spending was increased, but did not work for the 2014 farm bill because SNAP was cut slightly.
“Production agriculture drug that bill across the finish line almost single handedly,” Conaway said. “We have to create an urban-rural alliance to pass the next farm bill that is not based on SNAP.”
Conaway noted the Housed passed the farm programs and SNAP separately, but then put them back together in the final bill, and that some members voted against the final bill because the two were put together again. Whether the farm program and the nutrition programs should be in separate bills will be part of the “conversation” during the oversight hearings on the SNAP program, he added. “2018 won’t be easier,” Conaway said. “There won’t be new money to be had.”
Conaway made the remarks in response to a comment from Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, who said he believes the farm program and SNAP should be in separate bills.
Referring to the bill introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., that would put FDA in charge of any labeling of products with genetically modified ingredients and preempt state labels, Conway said this Congress will have to take up “the labeling issue at some time.”
Conaway added he is “a 10th Amendment guy,” but “you can’t have 50 different labels” for biotech products.
The House Agriculture Committee does not have jurisdiction over the biotech labeling bill since any program would be handled by the Food and Drug Administration, but Conaway told reporters that on a variety of issues he will use his “bully pulpit” position to educate the American people.
ON THE SENATE SIDE
Roberts said he thinks the results of the 2014 election, in which he won re-election and the Republicans won control of the Senate, was a result of the voters being tired of gridlock.
People were tired of governance by executive orders and regulation, Roberts said, adding too much regulation signals government doesn’t trust the people, he said.
“If you don’t trust people, in turn people don’t trust the government,” he added. “That is the issue facing the country.”
Although Congress did pass the farm bill in 2014, Roberts said gridlock makes the committees irrelevant.
Roberts devoted most of his attention to two matters over which the Senate Agriculture Committee does not have direct jurisdiction: the Endangered Species Act, administered by the Interior Department, and the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, a project of the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Referring to the issue of whether the lesser prairie chicken should be considered endangered, Roberts maintained their numbers have gone down because there has been a drought, and said now that it has begun to rain in Kansas, the habitat will improve and so will bird numbers.
He said he wishes Interior would get back to its original purpose of providing for conservation and enough of a habitat for birds and animals to exist, and “not get so hung up on listing every creature known to mankind.”
On WOTUS, Roberts warned the agriculture commissioners that agriculture needs to tell its story carefully. “You don’t want to get into an argument about clean water,” Roberts said. “You will lose that argument.”
Roberts also said he is opposed to the provision in the president’s budget that would repeal the stepped-up basis that farmers and ranchers use in passing their estates on to their heirs.
He said he would be in favor of repealing the estate tax, which he calls the “death tax,” rather than increasing those taxes. Repealing the stepped-up basis would make it difficult for farmers to pass their main assets to their children, raise the cost of capital and create complexity, he said.
Roberts said he has been meeting with members of his committee and the committee will have three goals:
- To be the “champion of farmers, ranchers and small business;”
- To conduct rigorous oversight of the agencies under its jurisdiction; and
- To work under regular order to reauthorize the child nutrition programs, the federal livestock marketing program and the Commodity Exchange Act, which covers the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
Roberts also said he is considering having “those with mud on their boots” testify ahead of USDA officials, because the officials always ask for more money.
Asked whether budget reconciliation might lead to a cut in crop insurance or the commodity title, Roberts said only, “We’ll have to meet our budget responsibilities.”