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Senate works through appropriations bill approvals

Senate approved water and energy bill last week and plans to mark up its agriculture funding bill Tuesday.

The Senate overwhelmingly passed its $37.5 billion fiscal 2017 Energy & Water Appropriations Bill last Thursday by a vote of 90-8. The bill's passage is the earliest in 40 years that the Senate has passed an appropriations bill, so there's some potential for momentum to push other funding bills forward in the coming weeks.

The funding bill contained several positive pieces of news for waterway infrastructure, harbor maintenance and general waterway operations, which many U.S. agricultural stakeholders heavily rely upon for export shipments of grains, oilseeds and other agricultural products and to obtain farm inputs like fertilizer for crop production.

The National Grain & Feed Assn. also commended the Senate passage, noting the bill's importance to allowing for the full use of estimated revenues coming into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund as well as for providing $3.17 billion for operations and maintenance to keep the existing lock and dam infrastructure functioning and for increasing funding for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.

The bill includes $1.3 billion for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to benefit U.S. ports. In a letter sent March 11 to leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee and energy-water subcommittee, members of the Agricultural Transportation Working Group asked for continued strong investment in the nation's waterway infrastructure. The letter noted that “having access to a modern and efficient inland waterways transportation system is vital to the efficient production, marketing and shipment of agricultural products in international commerce.”

National Corn Growers Assn. production and stewardship action team chair Brent Hostetler said, "The Senate bill not only delivered on our request for revenues generated from the diesel fuel tax going into the Waterways Trust Fund; they upped the Army Corps of Engineers' operations and maintenance account to $3.17 billion, which is nearly $467 million higher than the Administration's request level."

Maintaining locks, dams and harbors is crucial to the nation's export industry. The U.S. exports nearly one-quarter of the grain it produces, as an example. Export-bound barge movements account for the transport of 61% of corn, 42% of soybeans, 40% of wheat and 26% of sorghum produced in the U.S.

Hostetler said the fact that the bill “passed with 90% of Senate approval in a political climate where cooperation is not the norm demonstrates the wide support to modernizing our country's inland waterways infrastructure."

The House has not yet passed the energy and water appropriations bill it approved out of committee in April, but the bill is expected to be one of the first to reach the floor for a vote once full debate can begin on individual appropriations bills after May 15. The House version of the bill also contains strong funding levels as well as language prohibiting the Corps from using funds to implement the "waters of the United States" rule.

Ag appropriations

While the House Appropriations Committee passed its agriculture appropriations bill on April 19, which included funding bills for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food & Drug Administration, the Senate agriculture appropriations subcommittee had not taken up any bills before the recess.

The Senate subcommittee is now set to take up its version of the fiscal 2017 agriculture appropriations bill on Tuesday, May 17. The full appropriations committee is expected to vote on the bill on Thursday.

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