Congress takes numerous actions impacting agWritten by Saige Albert
Washington, D.C. – In the last weeks before Christmas, Congress jumped into high gear and passed a number of pieces of legislation that dramatically impact agriculture across the U.S.
Prior to officially ending the 113th Session of Congress on Dec. 16, Congress passed a $1 trillion spending bill, referred to as the “cromnibus” bill, and a tax extenders package.
The cromnibus package – a 1,600-page bill – authorized $1.1 trillion in discretionary funding. It was passed by the House of Representatives on Dec. 11 by a 219-206 vote and the Senate on Dec. 13 in a 56-40 vote.
The funding will keep the federal government running through the rest of the fiscal year – until Sept. 30, 2015. The exception is funding for the Department of Homeland Security, whose funding expires in February.
The Public Lands Council noted, “The Office of Management and Budget said Dec. 11 the administration supports passage.”
“We were very happy to see a number of issues that have affected our producers addressed in this legislation,” said National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Bob McCan. “It is clear that Congress recognizes and agrees that the Administration’s regulatory zeal has gone too far and if left unchecked, it will impede the economic growth of rural America.”
The cromnibus bill includes cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, Internal Revenue Service and Department of Agriculture.
“It keeps a very tight lid on domestic spending for normal government function and includes plenty of policy measures hitching a ride on the last train leaving the station before the 113th Congress closed up work for the month,” said the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC).
In the cromnibus bill, the impending sage grouse listing decision was delayed. A provision in the bill prevents any funds being spent on a listing decision until after Sept. 30, 2015.
NCBA Director of Communications Chase Adams noted the bill prevents funding for EPA to work toward requiring producers to obtain greenhouse gas permits for livestock and reporting of emissions from manure management systems.
Measures to deny a request for termination and closure of the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station, as well as restoration of $1 million to compensate ranchers for livestock killed by wolves, is also included, according to Capital Press.
Capital Press’ Carol Ryan Dumas also noted that the bill “rejects the administration’s proposal to add a one dollar per animal unit month (AUM) tax on livestock grazing.”
The National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) expressed concern about cuts to “already lean Farm Bill conservation programs” seen in the bill.
Related to conservation efforts, the bill removes $600 million from voluntary conservation programs, primarily the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), says NSAC.
With a cut of $402 million from CSP over 10 years, the bill includes a reduction of 2.3 million acres of CSP land from across the country.
EQIP also saw cuts of $136 million.
The bill also, however, removes the Clean Water Act’s Waters of the U.S. Interpretive Rule and re-emphasizes Clean Water Act agricultural exemptions, said NACD.
“We’re extremely concerned that Congress continues to cut from critical Farm Bill conservation programs,” said NACD President Earl Garber. “The 2014 Farm Bill already produced billions of dollars in savings, yet Congress continues to make cuts to important programs like CSP and EQIP. At a time when farmers and ranchers are facing increased pressure to produce food and fiber for a growing population, it’s extremely important that they have full access to the tools and resources they need to implement voluntary conservation practices on their land. Further cuts to vital conservation program funding will hinder the implementation of voluntary, locally-led conservation on the ground, putting our land and resources at risk for the future.”
Other funding measures
The cromnibus bill also contained a provision asking the Secretary of Agriculture to submit a report with recommendations for changes in the federal law required to bring the Country of Origin Labeling program into compliance with World Trade Organization rulings.
Additionally, the report directed the Secretary of Agriculture not to implement a duplicative beef checkoff program.
In a last minute effort, on Dec. 17, Congress passed a tax extenders package in a 76-16 vote in the U.S. Senate. The measure was passed in the House on Dec. 3 in a 378-46 vote.
“America’s cattle producers are primarily family-owned small businesses who need stability in the tax code in order to make sound business decisions,” said McCan. “This tax extenders package encourages economic growth and provides greater certainty in the tax code.”
The bill provided for a number of important measures that impact agriculture, including Section 179 Expensing and Bonus Depreciation measures.
Kent Bacus, NCBA director of legislative affairs, explained that Section 179 provides for higher deductions for capital expenditures, including machinery and equipment purchases.
“Last year producers were able to expense up to $500,000 on capital investments, but this year that was lowered to $25,000,” said Bacus. “For large equipment purchases and other capital investments, cattle producers need certainty in order to properly plan for their business.”
Though the news is positive for producers in the 2014 tax year, the measures are soon to expire, and new deals must be made prior to the 2015 tax-filing season.
Visit section179.org for more information on the deductions allowed.
Many people across the U.S. anticipate a productive Congress in 2015, following the 2014 General Election. The actions that may occur through the next year remain to be seen.
The 114th Congress is set to convene on Jan. 6.
Public lands package
Another important measure for agriculture – particularly public lands ranchers, the National Defense Authorization Act was passed on Dec. 12 and includes a number of grazing measures.
The 1,648-page bill included a 451-page public lands package with 96 items included.
The Grazing Improvement Act was an integral part of the legislation, providing greater certainty and stability to the livestock grazing community.
“Livestock grazing on public lands has a strong tradition in Wyoming and in the West. For too long, our ranching families have been the target of anti-grazing litigation that puts their grazing permits in jeopardy,” said Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). “By streamlining the permitting process, my bill will finally give Wyoming’s ranching families, and the local communities they support, the stability they need to keep their operations running strong.”
Barrasso also championed a bill related to hydropower development – the Bureau of Reclamation Conduit Hydropower Development Equity and Jobs Act.
The act was introduced in February and serves to eliminate barriers preventing conduit hydropower development in 11 Bureau of Reclamation projects across the West. Barrasso worked with Representative Steve Daines (R-Mont.) to initially introduce the bill in the House.
“Increasing hydropower development at Bureau of Reclamation facilities is a great opportunity to create rural jobs and lower electricity prices for American families,” said Barrasso. “I want to thank Representative Daines for working with me to finish the job of developing all our renewable small hydropower resources at these facilities. I look forward to the President signing this bill into law soon so we can fully embrace hydropower’s potential.”
The bill also improves a program to expedite oil and gas permitting, authorizing exclusions from environmental review for grazing permits on renewal, establishes a 200,000-plus acre Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Management Area in Montana and designates more than 200,000 acres of wilderness, said the Public Lands Council.
This article was compiled by Saige Albert, managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup, from a variety of sources, including AgWeb, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, DTN, Northern Ag Network, Drovers CattleNetwork and organization press releases.