Ag committees meet amidst financial issues

The House and Senate Agriculture Committees held their organizational meetings for the 116th Congress Feb. 7, with leaders of both committees discussing the tough times farmers are facing going into a fourth year of reduced income.

These times are also leading to an increase in farmer suicides.

“To a family that loses somebody, that’s a full-blown crisis,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-KS, said following his group’s meeting, according to various news reports. “Whether or not you make that determination countrywide, I’m not sure. But we are in a very tough spot. So I hope we don’t get more tariffs and tariff retaliation. I hope we can make some progress with China and restore markets we had.”

President Donald Trump’s tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum have resulted in retaliatory tariffs on farm commodities that created reduced farmer income.

On the House side, Chairman Collin Peterson, D-MN, said, “I have been saying for a year people are nervous,” when asked about a Wall Street Journal article pointing out that farm bankruptcies are up.

In reply, Peterson pointed to the steep fall in farm income since its crest in 2013 and said, “We are not in crisis yet. It seems that people are nervous. This trade stuff has made people more nervous.”

If commodity prices don’t improve and yields per acre falter, “we’ll have a lot of people in trouble” next year, Peterson said.

Peterson added that Congress’s ability to provide farmer assistance is limited because raising crop target prices 10 percent would cost $3 billion per year.

A “handful” of farmers won’t be able to get financing for this production year, Peterson said, explaining that he is more worried about next year if there is another year of mediocre crops.

Organizational protocol

These organizational meetings are a time when the chairmen and ranking members introduce their newest members and each group votes for the formal rules for how the committees are managed. Those rules are usually established via a number of routes.

The majority leaders of both houses set a baseline for committee rules; the chair will then tweak them to suit the needs of the committee, often in consultation with the ranking member from the other side of the aisle. When it comes to agriculture, it’s usually the way it’s always been done.

Both leaders added their goals for 2019. Peterson listed reauthorization of the Commodity Futures Trade Commission, which stalled in 2017 in a tug-of-war over agency funding and regulatory reach, and an extension of the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act, authorizing the Environmental Protection Agency to collect fees to maintain registration of pesticides. It was held up last year by a fight over teenage handlers of pesticides.

“Add in child nutrition and we’ll be fine,” said Roberts in supporting action on CFTC and PRIA. Congress has not touched child nutrition programs, which cost around $22 billion a year and are headlined by the school lunch program, since 2016. The Senate Agriculture Committee approved a package that included an expansion of summer-time meals. Hard-line House Republicans narrowly won Education Committee approval of a three-state test of converting school food programs into a block grant. Neither bill went to a floor vote, according to a report from Food and Environment Reporting Network.

Trade war drags on

The United States and China are nearing the end of a 90-day break for negotiations in their trade war. President Trump said Feb. 7 that he does not expect to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping before his March 1 deadline for increasing U.S. tariffs to 25 percent on $200 million of Chinese products. The rate is now 10 percent. Last week, Trump said he and Xi would settle the final details face-to-face to resolve the trade war.

“Not yet. Maybe,” Trump replied when reporters asked if he would meet Xi in the next month or so. Asked if there would be a meeting before the deadline, Trump said “No.” 

GOP no longer leads House

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House Ranking Member Mike Conaway, R-TX, noted how much things had changed for his party’s activities on the committee. While losing their majority, to the Democrats, Conaway noted the meeting was the first in over 20 years that former Chairmen Bob Goodlatte, R-VA, and Frank Lucas, R-OK, were not on the dais.

Goodlatte retired from Congress while Lucas has moved to be ranking member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

“The good news is that farmers and ranchers can take comfort in knowing that Chairman Lucas has pledged to return to the Agriculture Committee in time for the next farm bill,” Conaway said.

Also notable is how subcommittees are now formed compared with previous years.

Like the 2017-18 session, membership of the Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research subcommittee is far larger than membership on the General Farm Commodities and Risk Management subcommittee, 21 to 10, with the “GFC” committee divided equally at 5 to 5. Last session, the split was 21 to 14.

Peterson noted the difference, with younger, more urban members, looking to authorize legislation over urban-oriented small plot and vertical plot agriculture, as well as research into new types of foods.

“This is how much the world has changed,” Peterson said.

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