Government shutdown affects plenty in agriculture

It’s now the longest government shutdown in United States history, with Democrats and Republicans seeking solutions to reopen at least parts of the government, which has been closed since Dec. 28, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Congressional leaders are considering voting on appropriations bills, with the hope that bipartisan approval will lead to a signature by President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, there’s good and bad to shutting down the government, as rewrites of government regulations have stopped for now.

Perhaps the biggest part of the shutdown that affects producers is the closing of Farm Service Administration offices.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue Jan. 8 extended the deadline for agricultural producers to apply for payments under the Market Facilitation Program as provided by the trade mitigation program administered by USDA. The original deadline had been Jan. 15, but farmers have been unable to apply for the program since the lapse in federal funding caused the closure of FSA offices at the end of business on Dec. 28.

In a statement, Perdue said, “President Trump instructed me, as Secretary of Agriculture, to craft a program that would protect farmers from unjustified retaliatory tariffs from foreign nations. As part of that package, the Market Facilitation Program has been making payments directly to farmers who have suffered trade damage.

“Using existing funds, we were able to keep FSA offices open as long as possible, but unfortunately had to close them when funding ran out. We will therefore extend the application deadline for a period of time equal to the number of business days FSA offices were closed, once the government shutdown ends.

Farmers who have already applied for the program and certified their 2018 production have continued to receive payments. Meanwhile, I continue to urge members of Congress to redouble their efforts to pass an appropriations bill that President Trump will sign and end the lapse in funding so that we may again provide full services to our farmers and ranchers.”

Once the shutdown is over, producers are supposed to have until May 1 to turn in their production data.

Producer marketing help through useful data has been suspended due to the shutdown. Reports from the National Agricultural Statistics Service and Office of the Chief Economist—World Agricultural Outlook Board have been suspended since Dec. 22, and remains suspended.

“Given the lead time required for the analysis and compilation of Crop Production, Crop Production-Annual, World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates, Grain Stocks, Rice Stocks, Winter Wheat and Canola Seedings, and Cotton Ginnings reports, those reports will not be released on Jan. 11, as originally scheduled even if funding is restored before that date. The date of all NASS and OCE-WAOB releases will be determined and made public once funding has been restored,” USDA said in a release.

Long time Washington agricultural reporter Chuck Abbott, in a recent Food and Environment Reporting Network post, said, “If the shutdown drags on, USDA officials will have to decide whether to issue back-to-back versions of the Crop Production and WASDE reports or combine them.

“In 2013, a 17-day government shutdown in October forced the USDA to cancel a crop report for the first time in 147 years. The September 2001 crop and WASDE reports were postponed by two days because of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.”

Also, the shutdown threatens to cause the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to run out of funding as soon as next month. White House officials told Politico they are exploring whether they can avoid that scenario.

Regulatory situation

The shutdown has also ground Trump’s deregulatory plans to a halt, including his proposed replacement to Waters of the United States rules and approval of E15 summer sales.

As long as the Environmental Protection Agency is closed, the proposed WOTUS rule can’t be formally published, and the agency will be hard pressed to keep up with its already ambitious timeline for posting a final ethanol rule by May when summer driving season begins, something Trump has promised numerous times in speeches to farm groups. The release now might be delayed until as late as September,

The 60-day public comment period on the proposed WOTUS rule can’t begin until the government is reopened and the rule can be published in the Federal Register. A hearing on the proposed rule, originally set for Jan. 23 in Kansas City, Missouri, has been postponed indefinitely with no word on it being rescheduled for a later date.

ELD exemption

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One part of the shutdown has come as a welcome relief to livestock and insect haulers as they remain exempt from requiring the use of electronic logging devices in their vehicles. Legislation that would delay the use of ELDs by such haulers until the end of September is in the pending appropriations bills yet to be voted upon by the House and Senate that would also reopen parts of the government.

For the time being, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has posted the following on their website to clarify that livestock haulers are ELD exempt until further notice:

“Transporters of livestock and insects are not required to have an ELD. The statutory exemption will remain in place until further notice. Drivers do not need to carry any documentation regarding this exemption.”

FMCSA did not permanently exempt livestock transporters from the ELD mandate, and it does not have the authority to award permanent exemptions from the ELD mandate, or any other federal motor carrier safety regulations. FMCSA only has the regulatory authority to award exemptions to any FMCSR for a period of up to five years.

FMCSA has stated because the exemption is tied to federal appropriations there would be no funds available to enforce, or in this case not enforce, the ELD mandate on livestock and insect transporters in the event of a shutdown and consequently those transporters would remain exempt.

Livestock groups, meanwhile, are continuing their push for passage of the Transporting Livestock Across America Safely Act, introduced last year by Sen. Ben Sasse, R-NE, with bipartisan support from more than 45 co-sponsors, which would allow flexibility for livestock and insects to reach their destination given the vast geography of production and processing facilities.

Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or [email protected].