Congress returns to farm bill, other agricultural topics


Issue Date: November 14, 2018
By Kevin Hecteman

With one house of Congress set to flip to Democratic control next year, agricultural advocates focus on a post-election, "lame duck" session beginning this week as an opportunity to resolve lingering issues including farm policy and budget appropriations.

Josh Rolph, federal policy manager for the California Farm Bureau Federation, notes that Congress will need to work immediately on appropriations bills. A current omnibus extension ends Dec. 7 and without a new one, the government will shut down.

Also at stake is the 2018 Farm Bill, which has been stalled in Congress mainly due to stricter work requirements for food-assistance recipients, which was included in the House version of the bill but not in the Senate bill.

Rolph said he thinks the lame-duck session could try to resolve the farm bill before the new Congress is seated Jan. 3.

"The best-case scenario for agriculture is a farm bill passed this Congress, in the lame-duck session," he said.

If that doesn't happen, lack of access to programs could harm farmers, Rolph added. Farm loan and crop insurance programs continue to operate despite the expiration of the previous farm bill Sept. 30, he said, but most everything else remains on hold pending passage of a new bill.

California farmers and ranchers, he said, participate most actively in farm bill programs that have had their funding lapse.

"We rely on conservation funding, research funding, specialty-crop programs," Rolph said. "It's not a direct payment to a farmer, but there's an indirect benefit from those programs. None of those are being worked on right now."

House Republicans, with the support of the White House, favored the new work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but most Senate Republicans balked, and a compromise has not been reached. With Democrats set to take over the House, Republicans have an incentive to compromise.

Andrew Walmsley, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said he has heard that farm bill negotiations are close to wrapping up, making passage before the end of the year more likely.

If the farm bill can't be finalized during the lame-duck session, Rolph said, the incoming House majority will likely want to write its own bill.

"The process of writing a farm bill is slow, it's tedious, but they would want to probably do it from scratch, which would mean weeks, if not months," he said.

Walmsley said he has been told legislative leaders are not considering a possible extension of the previous farm bill.

"They are intending to get this done," he said. "That's going to be key for farmers and ranchers, our grassroots members, making sure their member of Congress knows how important this is, that they need to be applying pressure to leadership to hopefully have a conference report and a vote here in the next couple of weeks to get this done."

On the immigration front, the future of a proposed H-2C agricultural guestworker program and mandatory use of the E-Verify workplace-eligibility program remain up in the air. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., is retiring, and his party will soon be out of power in the House.

"The lame-duck session does offer Republicans one last chance to push through the Goodlatte bill," Rolph said.

He said CFBF would oppose that, because of flaws in the bill regarding an insufficient number of visas and a "touchback" requirement, with no guarantee of return, for immigrant agricultural employees already in the United States. If Congress proceeds with immigration legislation during the lame-duck session, Rolph said, CFBF would seek to negotiate agricultural provisions "that work for California agriculture."

If no action is taken before Jan. 3, Rolph said, indications from Capitol Hill are that immigration is not high on House Democrats' priority list. The thinking, he added, is that any action on immigration during 2019 would originate in the Senate, where Republicans boosted their majority.

"It would have to revolve around DACA, because the 'dreamer' issue is the one that gets everyone more interested in acting," Rolph said, using the acronym for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program aimed at helping people brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

Modifications to the federal Endangered Species Act seem unlikely to move forward in a new Democrat-controlled House, Rolph said, which could prompt an effort to craft a compromise in the lame-duck session.

On water issues, Erin Huston, a CFBF federal policy consultant, said a new waters of the United States, or WOTUS, rule is anticipated before the end of the month and could trigger legislative action in the form of riders on the farm bill or funding bills.

Once the new Congress opens in January, Rolph said, members will essentially have a year to act on policies before presidential politics intrude.

"Really, 2019 is going to be the year to get things done," he said. "In 2020, it will become next to impossible if the current polarization worsens."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be reached at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.