D.C. Watch: What’s next for Congress?

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The new farm bill passed the Senate and was signed by the President last week. Now that the long arduous legislative process is behind us, USDA will have to scramble to implement the new provisions with many that need to be put in place by spring planting time.

Farmers will need to make a one-time choice between the new Agriculture Risk Coverage program and the Price Loss Coverage program. Other new provisions will take more time. For example the new cotton insurance program – STAX – will not be available until next year and the same is true of the new Supplemental Coverage Option that will be available to farmers that choose the Price Loss Coverage option.

The new dairy Margin Protection Program must be established by September 1 of this year. The 2014 farm bill covers the 2014/15 through 2018/19 crop years.

The Keystone pipeline project is a step closer to reality now that the U.S. State Department raised no major environmental objections to its construction. The State Department did not recommend approval of the project that would carry oil from Canada to a hub in Nebraska where it would connect with existing pipelines that would move the oil to Texas refineries.

Other departments, including the EPA, have 90 days to comment before the State Department makes a final recommendation. State Department approval is needed because the pipeline crosses the U.S.-Canadian border. The President blocked the Keystone pipeline two years ago, saying he needed more time to review all of the information. The latest environmental review indicates that development of the tar sands in Alberta will create greenhouse gases but other methods of transporting the oil would be more damaging than the pipeline.

Other news from Washington:

  • Attorney Generals from 21 states are appealing a federal court ruling that validated EPA’s establishment of Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The suit contends that EPA does not have the authority under the Clean Water Act to tell states how to meet federal water quality standards. The states contend that instead of setting an aggregate amount of certain pollutants allowed in impaired waters, the EPA used the TMDLs to “micromanage sources of pollution that by tradition – and by statute – have been beyond EPA’s reach”. This process is expected to drag on a while, but states are worried that EPA will set TMDLs for the Mississippi River watershed which would significantly impact agriculture over 31 states.
  • The current congressional debt-ceiling limit ended on Friday and now the debate over raising the debt ceiling will get started. It is not clear when the government will run out of money and be unable to pay its bills, but it will probably be right around the end of February. Many republicans want to use the need to raise the debt ceiling as leverage to extract cuts in government spending, but democrats say they will not negotiate conditions. Few members of Congress from either political party want to trigger another government shutdown so the two sides will probably reach agreement before we get to the next fiscal cliff.
  • USDA is unveiling a new effort to coordinate the government’s response to extreme weather events related to climate change. Seven new “climate hubs” will be developed around the country and these hubs will act as clearing houses for data and research efforts. The objective is for these hubs to assess local climate changes and develop plans for dealing with them.
  • In 2012, 16.5 million full- and part-time jobs were related to agriculture—about 9.2 percent of total U.S. employment. Direct on-farm employment provided over 2.6 million of these jobs. Employment in the related industries supported another 13.9 million jobs. The data appears in ERS’s data product, Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials, on the ERS website.

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