A look ahead at the top issues for 2014
By Sara Wyant
So much to do and so little time!
Now that the holidays are over and the House and Senate are back in action, there’s a lengthy “to-do” list waiting. And even though there are almost 11 months between the time you read this and the November elections, there are only 27 working weeks for House lawmakers to demonstrate that they actually did something to earn your vote—or for challengers to convince you otherwise.
Topping the list for many in agriculture is a new multi-year farm bill. Optimism abounds that the farm bill will finally pass both the House and Senate this year and be sent to President Barack Obama’s desk in January.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, told us that he fully expects a long-term farm bill to be completed in Congress by the end of the month.
“[Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-MI] thinks she can get it done soon,” Reid said. “It should be done, hopefully, in the next two weeks.”
But it’s not a slam dunk, especially when you consider that the House defeated a comprehensive farm bill last summer by 234-195 and then only narrowly passed a “farm only” farm bill a few weeks later by 216-208.
In addition to the farm bill, there is also a long list of other items that Congress must address including:
Annual appropriations. The deadline for passing new appropriations bills to keep the government funded is Jan. 15, when the current continuing resolution expires. Lawmakers are expected to release details of the $1.012 trillion omnibus spending bill by the end of the week in order to prevent another government shutdown.
A budget deal, which passed last month, provided the guidelines for figuring out how the money will be spent. Under the deal brokered by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA, discretionary spending levels will increase for both fiscal years 2014 and 2015. But the agreement caps non-defense spending at $491.8 billion.
Water resources. Agriculture depends heavily on the ability to move inputs, like fertilizer and fuel, and exports along our nation’s waterways and through our port system. Now, after six years of trying, Congress is nearing final passage of a new Water Resources Development Act that can help improve our ailing waterways.
A bipartisan conference is currently working to reconcile the differences between the two versions of the bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate with overwhelming support earlier this year.
Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker says the measure has the potential for major job growth—with estimates predicting up to 500,000 new American jobs. The bill would also help ensure U.S. industries have a navigable and cost-effective transportation network to do business. Commerce along America’s waterways is vital to the overall health of the economy. The Mississippi River alone is responsible for more than $100 billion of the nation’s gross domestic product, Wicker says.
The RFS. The Renewable Fuel Standard and the future of renewable energy will be hotly contested this year. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed lowering the RFS from 18.15 billion gallons specified for 2014 to 15.21 billion gallons. But the proposal is open for public comment until Jan. 28, drawing strong interest from corn growers and other renewable energy advocates, as well as the livestock and poultry industries, which have long-sought repeal or at least a waiver of the RFS.
In addition, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, and Tom Coburn, R-OK, have drafted a bill that would leave the RFS’s advanced biofuel requirements, require 15 billion gallons of conventional corn ethanol, and 21 billion gallons of advanced ethanol in the nation’s motor fuel supply by 2022.
Regulatory issues. In addition to the RFS, there are a host of regulatory issues that could emerge from the EPA.
Just what are the “waters of the U.S.” and which ones require protection under the Clean Water Act? That’s what the EPA is trying to more clearly define in a proposal that’s been sent to the Office of Management and Budget and which may be opened for public comment this year.
The draft rule is based on an EPA report, “Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters.” Regulatory and legal confusion surrounding that term prompted the agency to try to define it through rulemaking. The EPA’s efforts have been criticized by some in the agriculture community as overly broad and far-reaching. Don Parrish, senior director of regulatory affairs with the American Farm Bureau Federation, said it looks like the agency is trying to maintain unprecedented regulatory control over U.S. waters. The proposal would affect agriculture and private landowners in two ways. “First, it will shift control of land from private landowner and states to EPA,” Parrish said. “And secondly, it will significantly increase the activities EPA can and will regulate in and around these newly defined ‘waters’—ultimately limiting land use.”
Mississippi River Basin Battle. The legal battles over EPA action—or nonaction—on nutrient limits for the Mississippi River Basin may heat up in 2014. Environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council have petitioned EPA to develop numeric limits for nitrogen and phosphorus, often carried in farm runoff, for the 2,530 mile long river and its tributaries. The requested standards are similar to those enforced in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Although EPA initially denied the petition, a federal court held that the agency has to respond and determine whether numeric limitations on the pollutants are appropriate for the Mississippi’s basin. EPA appealed this ruling and a decision on the case is expected this year. Under the Clean Water Act, states are responsible for adopting their own water quality standards, and EPA is supposed to step in only when states demonstrate they cannot or will not comply. Environmental groups assert that most states have done little to meaningfully control the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, which have been blamed for algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico known as Red Tides. The difficulty of the task requested by the environmental groups is underscored by the sheer size of the Mississippi’s basin, which collects water from 31 states. EPA said one in legal brief that efforts to set federal numeric nutrient criteria for even 10 states at one time would involve “sizable regulatory and oversight burdens.”
Highway bill. Highway programs expire at the end of fiscal 2014 and transportation committees are expected to spend much of this year working on reauthorization of highway bills. One of the key topics will be how to pay for an anticipated shortfall in the highway trust fund, which is currently supported by gasoline taxes. The 18.4 cent-per-gallon gasoline tax has not been increased since the mid-1990s, but any increase is sure to meet stiff opposition.
Immigration. The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill last year that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in addition to measures that would address border security. But the House seems unlikely to follow a similar path, preferring instead to take a step-by-step approach to immigration reform. One bill to watch is H.R. 1773, which would provide for more guest agricultural workers.
Editor’s note: Agri-Pulse Editor Sara Wyant can be reached at www.agri-pulse.com.