D.C. Watch: Temporary solutions for U.S. spending, budget woes

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Congress has avoided a fight with the Administration over the debt ceiling, at least for a little while. In effect, policymakers agreed to essentially suspend the borrowing limit until May 18. However, the bill puts pressure on both the House and the Senate to pass budgets before the time expires. Without this agreement, the government’s ability to pay its bills would have ended before March 1. This move is only temporary, but it does show at least some bipartisan progress to deal with some of the current problems.

But policymakers still face some big challenges over the next couple of months. The automatic budget cuts under the “sequester” kick in by March 1 if there is no agreement on narrowing the federal deficit. Those cuts total $109 billion for fiscal 2013, with about half coming from the Defense Department. But with nearly half of the federal government’s fiscal year already over by the beginning of March, the spending cuts will have an exaggerated impact on almost all government departments because they will have to be accomplished in just the remaining months of the fiscal year! (The continuing resolution that is funding government operations under past budgets expires near the end of March.)

The Senate is moving ahead with work on a five-year farm bill. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., introduced the version of the Farm Bill passed by the Senate last year and labeled it as one of several privileged “top priority” bills. Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., says she is committed to convening a Committee mark-up as soon as possible. With Sen. Thad Cochrane, R-Ga., taking over as Ranking Member of the committee, the bill that gets through committee will probably be different from the one passed by the full Senate last June.

Farmers can sign up for 2013 commodity programs beginning February 19 per this week’s announcement by Ag Secretary Vilsack. Farmers can enroll in the Direct and Counter-Cyclical Payment (DCP) Program or the Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) Program. Producers who have previously enrolled in the ACRE program will be able to opt-out of the program this year, something they couldn’t do before the old farm bill expired in September. The DCP sign-up period will run through August 2, while the ACRE program enrollment ends June 3. All dairy producers’ MILC contracts are automatically extended to Sept. 30, 2013.

The Governor of Nebraska has approved a new route for the Keystone pipeline project. The pipeline, if approved, could deliver 830,000 barrels of oil per day from Canada’s tar sands region in Alberta. Environmentalists oppose the pipeline, claiming it would increase U.S. carbon emissions by more than 25 million metric tons annually. Ultimately the pipeline must be approved by the U.S. State Department because it crosses international borders. But a spokesman says no decision will be made about the pipeline in Washington until after March.

Japan’s Pharmaceutical Affairs and Food Sanitation Council, a division of that country’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, will start studying recommendations regarding the age limit on imported beef next week. If it accepts the recommendations the age limit for imported beef could be raised from the current 20 months to 30 months between the end of February and early April. (The current 20 month age limit has been in place since 2007.)

Several agriculture industry groups have filed a motion to dismiss the long-running lawsuit that claims the EPA failed to consult with federal wildlife services when approving the use of nearly 300 pesticide products. Settlement talks have been going on for months with little progress. If the lawsuit succeeds, EPA might have to re-evaluate all of the pesticides, and that could significantly limit crop producers’ options. The hearing on the motion to dismiss is scheduled for March 15.

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