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US ag committees get things done, but need more speed

Ag committees
Members of the U.S. Senate are urging the USDA to provide more information on concerns expressed about the proposed changes to the organic livestock and poultry rule. | Holbox, Bigstock

GMO labeling bill, COOL repeal show compromises can be made in Congress, but the pace is often stressfully slow

July 18, 2016

Back in 2013 when the farm bill was set to expire and there was apprehension regarding whether a new bill would get approved, Mike Johanns, a former U.S. agriculture secretary who was a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee at the time, expressed his confidence in how ag committee leaders tend to lead when it comes to working together and approving legislation.

Recent activity on Capitol Hill shows that Johanns – to a degree -- knew what he was talking about.

After hearing input from agriculture industry leaders -- including those from United Egg Producers and the National Turkey Federation – the agriculture committees from both houses quickly urged the USDA in late May to extend the deadline for the proposed revisions to the organic livestock and poultry production standards. While the USDA only extended the deadline 30 days instead of the requested 60 days, getting that extension can still be seen as an accomplishment.

More recently, on July 14, the House of Representatives passed a mandatory labeling system of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on food products – an action that would prevent a patchwork of different state laws on GMO labeling. That vote came one week after the Senate passed the bill, which was a compromise worked out between Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and the committee’s ranking member, Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

That bill may still be stuck in gridlock, had it not been for that common aggie spirit that Johanns mentioned. But while it is nice that the bill passed in relatively short order, doggone it, it should have passed much earlier.

The Roberts-Stabenow compromise bill didn’t get committee approval until June 23, with only eight days left until a Vermont GMO labeling bill was to take effect. And with the House on recess, that didn’t give the bill enough time to get full approval in advance of the activation date of the Vermont law.

Delays also occurred with COOL

The slowness of the GMO labeling legislation wasn’t the first time these agriculture committees and the houses they are part of took longer than desired to reach a deal. On December 7, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that Canada and Mexico could place more than $1 billion in tariffs on U.S. goods because it had not yet acted on a WTO ruling that deemed the U.S. country of origin labeling (COOL) laws on meat and poultry products inconsistent with free-trade standards. That initial WTO ruling came six months earlier.

However, even though the clock was ticking, it took about ten more days both houses finally voted to repeal COOL.

What is the source of the delays?

It’s hard to point fingers exactly to who is to blame in the partisan differences that have prevented these bills important to the agriculture industry from being passed in the most timely manner, but it does appear that the divide is stronger in the Senate.

I subscribe to the email newsletters from all four agriculture committee leaders. I’ve been one of Roberts’ constituents for most of my years as a registered voter, and he seems to be more partisan than he was during his time in the House in the 1980s and 1990s. While his mailings do give valuable updates on what is going on in Washington, far too much space in that newsletter is dedicated to giving updates on what Obama and the Democrats are doing wrong. But I’ll give him credit, he is still looking out for Kansas farmers, despite the fact that he only rents a room in Dodge City for residency requirements.

Stabenow’s newsletters, while more subtle, show that she is at odds with Republicans. When Roberts proposed a COOL repeal, she offered an amendment that would have been deemed unacceptable by the WTO, which many could justifiably say led to the delay. The fact that Obama chose Michigan as the location to announce the signing of the farm bill in 2014 as Stabenow was up for re-election, could also be seen as a sign that the Democrats were really stumping to keep her in office to battle the Republicans.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., have appeared to work more closely together, as they quickly worked out a repeal of COOL and acted in relatively short order to pass along the GMO labeling law. Of all newsletters I receive from elected officials, Peterson’s is the one that if you didn’t already know of his political affiliation, you couldn’t really tell by reading it.

A chance to better prove Johanns right

One more issue that has been advocated by industry groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) is the ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.

It’s been more than nine months since negotiators from 12 countries reached an agreement on TPP, and more than 5 months since representatives from all participating countries signed the agreement, but it has yet to be reviewed by Congress and ratified.

Nick Giordano, vice president and counsel, global government affairs, NPPC said during World Pork Expo in June that there is a good possibility that TPP won’t be considered until the lame-duck session that begins in November, but if delayed much longer than that, TPP could be rejected by other nations to sign the deal.

I say why wait until the lame duck session.

TPP may impact industries other than agriculture, but dozens of agriculture oriented groups have pushed for its passage. So if agriculture committee members are truly advocating for agriculture, it’s time to start the TPP discussions. In doing so, they will validate what Johanns said nearly three years ago.

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