Washington Update


Congress returns this week from its two-week Easter recess. The Senate will continue to focus on confirming President Trump’s nominees for vacant Administration positions and judicial posts while the House will take up legislation (PDF) directing the Trump Administration to take action on the 2015 Paris climate accords. Much of the attention in the House continues to center around the April 18 release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigative report regarding Russian intervention in the 2016 elections. Attorney General William Barr is expected to testify before the House and Senate Judiciary Committees regarding the Department of Justice’s investigation. Congressional leaders will meet with President Trump this week to discuss possibilities for making progress on legislative priorities such as fiscal year 2020 spending measures, disaster assistance, trade, and infrastructure. Partisan differences regarding funding levels for disaster relief for Puerto Rico have slowed progress on Midwest flood damage assistance. In addition to funding for crop losses, pending disaster relief proposals include provisions to compensate for the loss of stored grain.

Ag Appropriations
The Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee held an April 11 hearing with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and other USDA officials regarding the USDA Fiscal Year 2020 budget proposal. Secretary Perdue testified (PDF) at a House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on April 9. As previously noted, the Administration’s FY20 proposal includes reductions for USDA operating expenses and programs including caps on commodity payments and limits on federal subsidies for crop insurance premiums.

Ag Sustainability
On April 10, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture held a hearing entitled “Economic Opportunities for Farmers through Sustainable Agricultural Practices.” The Acting Associate Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (PDF) and private sector representatives served as witnesses.

National Water Quality Initiative
On April 17, a bipartisan group of Senators sent a letter (PDF) to Agriculture Secretary Perdue urging the USDA to adopt a department-wide approach to implementation of the Farm Bill’s National Water Quality Initiative provisions. The Senators cited the Farm Bill’s “historic investments in voluntary conservation efforts to address water quality challenges” and made several specific recommendations for efficient, coordinated implementation.

Trade Activity
On April 26, President Trump held a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House. This week U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin travel to Beijing for continued trade negotiations including discussions of agriculture, services, and intellectual property the White House announced. A Chinese delegation will travel to Washington for further discussions beginning May 8.

On April 18, the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) released its statutorily required report (PDF) assessing the likely impact of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) on the U.S. economy, specific industry sectors, and consumers. Using qualitative and quantitative analysis, the Commission estimates that if fully implemented and enforced, USMCA would have a positive impact on U.S. GDP and employment. The report indicates that U.S. exports and imports would increase for agriculture, manufacturing, and services, with U.S. manufacturing exports likely to have the largest percentage increase and services having the largest impact in terms of imports.

Vice President Mike Pence published an op-ed in the Detroit News and traveled to Dearborn, Michigan on April 24 to highlight the benefits of the US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement for the auto industry.

While the Trump Administration is increasing its efforts to push for passage of the USMCA trade agreement announced in November of last year, there is not yet a definitive timeline for Congress to consider ratification of the trade deal.

In comments at an early April event sponsored by Politico, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said the House would not take up USMCA until after Mexico reforms its labor laws. Mexico’s Congress is currently considering such changes. In an April 9 letter (PDF) to US Trade Representative Lighthizer, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richie Neal (D-MA) outlined the general views of Committee Democrats with respect to the trade agreement and previewed subsequent letters detailing their concerns with labor provisions (PDF) in the agreement, environmental provisions (PDF) in the agreement, and the enforceability (PDF) of the new agreement, particularly the labor and environmental provisions.

On April 28, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and Chairman of the Finance Committee which has jurisdiction over trade matters, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Trump’s Tariffs End or His Trade Deal Dies,” in which he suggested there is “no appetite in Congress to debate USMCA” with national security steel and aluminum in place. In a March 12 hearing before the Senate Finance Committee regarding the World Trade Organization, US Trade Representative Lighthizer indicated in response to questions that the Administration was negotiating with Canada and Mexico to “find a way out of that dilemma for them and for us.”

Former Agriculture Chairman Lugar
Former six-term Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) passed away on April 28 at the age of 87. A farmer himself, Lugar served on the Senate Agriculture Committee during his entire tenure in Congress including as Chairman from 1995 to 2001. He participated in the development and passage of several Farm Bills and promoted agricultural biotechnology, renewable fuels including ethanol, agricultural trade, and international food security. He was a champion of the Conservation Reserve Program and was well known for his service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, particularly his promotion of nuclear nonproliferation.