THE House and Senate agriculture committees have used the first few months of this new Congress to get busy working on top legislative priorities as well as addressing reauthorization packages and timely needs.
Last week, the House Agriculture Committee passed a bill out of committee that would repeal the country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law after the U.S.'s latest and final failed World Trade Organization appeal.
Although the Senate Agriculture Committee hasn't brought up its own version of a COOL fix, it may have to get its ducks in a row quickly as the full House could vote on the repeal as soon as June.
Legislators are feeling the heat from Canada and Mexico as well as agriculture industries to find a fix for COOL that avoids retaliatory tariffs.
Three other major reauthorization bills that need to pass before the end of September — the mandatory livestock reporting bill, the Grains Standards Act and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) — also quickly advanced through the House Agriculture Committee well ahead of their deadlines. The full House could take up the CFTC bill in June.
The Senate followed suit and advanced its own Grain Standards Act bill with unanimous approval during a business meeting May 21. The Senate bill had some differences from the House's version as well as reaffirmed the role of the federal inspection service.
The agriculture industry welcomed the steps in both bills that are intended to prevent future disruptions in export inspection services similar to what occurred last summer at the Port of Vancouver, Wash.
The Senate bill also includes an important change to the flawed formula the U.S. Department of Agriculture currently uses to set user fees charged to export elevators, which the National Grain & Feed Assn. and the North American Export Grain Assn. (NAEGA) estimate will result in up to $12 million in overcharges during the current and next fiscal years.
Both grain groups remain disappointed that neither the House nor Senate version allows USDA to utilize qualified inspectors employed by independent, third-party entities to perform official inspections at export facilities.
A recent study conducted for NAEGA found that 20-25% of U.S. exports of bulk grains, oilseeds and major co-products already are being re-inspected by these third-party entities in response to specific requests from foreign buyers.
Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) said he looks forward to the Grain Standards Act being the "first of many bipartisan bills that will pass through the agriculture committee this Congress."
He and ranking committee member Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) recognize the need for bipartisanship and have proved their commitment to carrying that forward. The end result should help bring workable legislation to the agricultural community.
House Agriculture Committee chairman Michael Conaway (R., Texas) said USDA oversight will be a focus in the coming months. He noted that 17 agencies need review and specifically called attention to the ongoing review of the food stamp program. The House agriculture subcommittee on nutrition held another hearing May 20 on federal nutrition programs, this time focusing on duplication and unmet needs within the program.