Op-Ed

A Solid Start for the House Agriculture Committee in the 114th Congress

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Washington, September 2, 2015 | comments
By Chairman K. Michael Conaway

When I became Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee in January of this year, I had one primary goal: to ensure that America’s farmers and ranchers have the policies in place that they need to feed, fuel, and clothe the nation while ensuring stability and consistency for farmers, ranchers, consumers, markets, and rural communities. After all, agriculture is the foundation of our livelihood and the lifeblood of rural America. And, while our work will never be done, we are off to a great start.

To date, the Agriculture Committee has held 13 full committee hearings, 20 subcommittee hearings, two executive sessions with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, and marked up nine bills, eight of which have passed the House with one signed into law.

In our 33 hearings this year, we have examined many issues important to American agriculture, including the state of the rural economy, where falling prices have resulted in a 43 percent decline in net farm income over the last two years, and the status of farm bill implementation. On the latter, much credit goes to USDA Secretary Vilsack, who has appeared before the committee twice this year, and his staff at USDA for their hard work.

During the annual budget and appropriations process, we worked closely with the chairmen of each respective committee to ensure our hard work on the farm bill was not undermined. Both heeded the advice in our committee’s budget views and estimates letter which called for defending the farm bill and crop insurance while recognizing the significant estimated spending reductions that the committee has made over the last several years.

I set an ambitious agenda this spring to reauthorize all of our expired or expiring programs and agencies. Together, we got our work done, and we have moved legislation to reauthorize everything within our jurisdiction. We have approved legislation to create a federal preemption blocking state and local biotech labeling regimes; two forestry bills; two Commodities Exchange Act bills; legislation to bring the U.S. into compliance on mandatory country of origin labeling; and reauthorization of Mandatory Price Reporting and the U.S. Grain Standards Act, where we aim to prevent another Vancouver port situation. These bills provide certainty for farmers and ranchers and give them the tools they need to continue operating their businesses without interruption. We reported these bills out of committee with strong, bipartisan support, and we moved them across the House floor in the same fashion. The Senate is now beginning its work on these legislative items.

In anticipation of the next farm bill, which is still three years away, the committee is engaging in a top-to-bottom review of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Past, Present, and Future of SNAP. In our first seven hearings on SNAP, we looked at the program through the eyes of recipients, which helped us discover the need for more state and local flexibility in order to move from a one-size-fits-all program to one that is tailored to meet specific needs. We’ve heard from dozens of organizations and SNAP recipients on the importance of the charitable sector in engaging recipients. Churches, food banks, and other local organizations are simply better equipped than the federal government in some areas, and together we can improve the lives of the 46 million Americans in need of assistance. Many of those in the program face barriers like the “welfare cliff,” and challenges with transportation or childcare, which prevent them from being able to enter or re-enter the work force and move up the economic ladder.

This summer, we also began a full review of U.S. international food aid programs. For nearly 60 years, the U.S. has been the global leader in providing international food aid—often in the form of American-grown commodities—and U.S. agricultural producers have been central to those efforts. The Agricultural Act of 2014 made several important reforms to food aid programs, and we will monitor implementation of those changes in advance of the next farm bill.

Throughout all of our committee’s work, our aim has been to create an environment of greater certainty for our nation’s farmers and ranchers so they can focus on what they do best rather than looking over their shoulder wondering what Washington has in store. Our work, however, impacts much more than just producers; agriculture affects everyone. During the development of the last farm bill, the growing gap between urban and rural American became increasingly apparent. That gap seems to widen every day. Nowhere is that more apparent than Congress, where the number of rural districts continues to decline. We must do a better job of bridging that gap.

That’s why our committee is focusing on building coalitions in many important areas. By engaging the public in areas like food safety and transparency, we were able to garner support from 475 groups on the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which passed the House in July. As we continue taking up issues that directly impact consumers, like Dietary Guidelines for Americans and future trade negotiations, it is important to have the input and support of all stakeholders.

With fewer and fewer voices in Congress representing rural America, members of the Agriculture Committee have the responsibility to participate in ongoing work outside of the committee’s jurisdiction, whether it’s trade, energy, or national defense. In 2014, U.S. agriculture exports reached a record-setting $152.5 billion, and with recently-passed Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), Congress will be able to work alongside U.S. trade officials as they negotiate deals that could greatly expand market opportunities for U.S. farmers, ranchers, and consumers. Similarly, the House will consider legislation this fall to lift the ban on oil exports, which would benefit rural communities.

Members of the Agriculture Committee have been instrumental in other efforts, like blocking EPA regulations harmful to agriculture. We have backed other committees’ efforts to repeal the death tax, pass TPA, block EPA’s Waters of the United States rule, address state and local biotech labeling laws, and deal with new regulations on sage grouse and prairie chickens. These are just a few examples of the many areas in which my colleagues on the committee, and our colleagues who have a vested interest in agriculture, have had the opportunity to represent and advocate for rural America.

Whether the issue is finance or farms, welfare or rural development, humanitarian aid or national defense, agriculture is a major component. It has been a tremendous honor to lead these efforts as Chairman, and I look forward to working with our outstanding committee members going forward.