With the convening of the 114th U.S. Congress, the Republican Party controls both the House and Senate for the first time since 2006. Unlike 2006, today’s GOP Congressional power will be pitted against a Democratic president in the White House. That means any potential agricultural policy changes will have to come through a bipartisan process to become law.
Both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have new leadership. In the House, Rep. Mike Conaway (R, TX) takes over as chair from Rep. Frank Lucas (R, OK), who was term-limited under House GOP conference rules. Rep. Collin Peterson (D, MN) stays on as ranking member for the Committee. In the Senate, Sen. Pat Roberts (R, KS) takes over as Committee chair, while Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D, MI) moves to the ranking member slot.
Here are some of the agricultural and food issues the 114th Congress may address:
Child Nutrition Act: One piece of agricultural policy legislation must be addressed in 2015 is reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which provides the structural and funding authority for the school meals programs, WIC and related programs. Work on this bill will be done by the Agriculture Committee in the Senate, but by the Education and Workforce Committee in the House. Despite the fact that the last such bill—the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010--passed with a strong bipartisan vote, many of the nutritional guidelines it created are now opposed by many elected Republicans as overly intrusive.
GMO labeling: In an effort to forestall disparate state laws, Congress may take up a bill that would establish national standards for labeling GMO content on food packages. Such legislation would be handled by the House and Senate Agriculture Committees.
SNAP: The new House Ag Committee chairman has committed to undertaking a thorough review of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as one of his top priorities in the new Congress, with an eye toward reducing spending on the program by improving its efficiency. However, the new Senate Ag Committee chair has also said publicly that he does not intend to reopen the 2014 farm bill, so it is not clear how far the House efforts can actually go.
COOL legislation: In the FY15 CRomnibus bill, Congress instructed USDA to devise a proposal to legislatively fix the livestock Country of Origin (COOL) bill so it could be implemented in a way consistent with WTO rules. Rules promulgated under the existing legislation have been successfully challenged twice under the WTO dispute settlement process by Mexico and Canada. If the U.S. appeal filed in late November fails, the U.S. government will have to change or withdraw the rules or face retaliation.
Trade Promotion Authority: As the Obama administration makes progress in negotiating major free trade agreements (FTAs) with Pacific Rim countries (TPP) and with the European Union (TTIP), the President is expected to press Congress to grant him Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) that would enable final deals to be considered by Congress without allowing members to amend the terms. This is one area in which there is the possibility of agreement between the President and Congressional GOP leadership. But it will face opposition from Tea Party-affiliated Republican members who don't want to concede anything to President Obama, and liberal Democrats who believe FTAs invariably lead to U.S. job losses. Most U.S. farm groups support these two FTAs as they anticipate increased exports to result. This legislation, and any bills needed to enact the two FTAs, would be handled by the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means Committees.
RFS legislation: After the EPA's effort to reduce the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) administratively for 2014 stalled, there is likely to be an effort to repeal or modify the RFS legislatively during the 114th Congress. This action would face strong opposition from Midwest members from both parties. This legislation would be handled by the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Clean Water Act rulemaking: The CRomnibus bill required EPA to withdraw its interpretative rule on agricultural activities associated with its rulemaking process on the Clean Water Act, but at this point, EPA plans to proceed with the rule itself. The public comment period closed in November. The new Congress may try to halt or overturn the new rule before it takes effect using provisions of the Congressional Review Act, but would have to do so over the expected veto of the President.
Agricultural immigration reform: While a comprehensive immigration deal seems unlikely given the adverse Republican reaction to the President's Executive Actions in November, there is some possibility that the House and Senate could take up the piecemeal approach originally proffered by Speaker Boehner in 2013. A stand-alone bill addressing farm immigration issues could be considered on this basis. This legislation would be handled primarily by the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.