D.C. Watch: Congress back in session, but don’t expect much
Congress is back in session, but few people expect much to get done before the body adjourns again until after the election. Congress needs to pass another “continuing resolution” to keep the government running beyond the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year.
Legislation concerning the Bush-era tax cuts, the automatic spending cuts that kick in January 1st, raising the debt ceiling and other critical issues will probably be put off until the lame-duck session after the election. Right now, Congress is planning on a lame-duck session that lasts for just 16 legislative days. Some politicians, including House Speaker John Boehner, say they are not sure Congress will be able to take action on these measures and the U.S. economy could go over what is being called a “fiscal cliff."
One of the things Congress was “supposed” to take up in this current session was bill granting Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) to Russia. However, the bill is not on the majority leader’s schedule for this week. The bill is to be considered under a “suspension of the rules” which means debate will be limited, no amendments will be allowed and the bill must receive a two-thirds majority to be approved. The delay suggests that there might not be 290 votes in favor of the bill.
Here’s the downside for farmers in that event: Without the bill Russia can keep high tariffs on imports from the U.S., while tariffs are reduced for other members of the World Trade Organization.
Groups from all across the agriculture sector gathered in Washington this week to encourage Congress to pass a five-year farm bill. Several farm groups wrote letters to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R- Ky., asking them not to pass a new disaster bill, which they say would result in further delays in completing the full five-year farm bill. But it now appears that the House of Representatives will allow for the current farm bill to expire at the end of this month without taking any action.
House leaders say they have decided against including an extension of the current farm bill in the six-month continuing resolution that they expect to pass before Congress breaks until after the election. It is not clear when or even if Congress will take action to pass a new farm bill or extend the old one.
Conservatives in the House are blocking consideration of the farm bill, calling for bigger cuts in the SNAP (food stamp) program. The House bill includes $16 billion in cuts to SNAP over 10 years, far more than the $4.5 billion included in the Senate bill.
However, funding for food and nutrition programs may not be cut at all if Congress fails to pass a farm bill. Funding for food and nutrition programs will continue at or near current levels under the continuing resolution and SNAP is exempt from the automatic budget cuts that kick in at the beginning of January. The biggest losers if no farm bill is passed? Taxpayers. Farm programs revert to very expensive policies put in place in the 1940s. That may be the catalyst needed to get Congress to move.
The EPA has extended the comment period for the waiver of the RFS ethanol mandate by 15 days. This gives farmers more time to participate in the important policy decision process. The National Corn Growers Association had requested a 30-day extension, but NCGA President Garry Niemeyer says his group is pleased with EPA’s decision to at least extend 15 days.
An actual decision about the requests for a waiver of the RFS ethanol mandate will be made by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with input from other government departments as well as public comments received. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack has made it clear that USDA will continue to support the ethanol industry and that “unless things change” he will recommend against the waiver.
Vilsack says he doesn’t think a waiver would do much to reduce corn prices anyway.