Current Edition

current edition

As this year draws to a close, we are once again approaching a federal budget deadline that will likely be postponed. Over the last 40 years, since the modern budget process was established, Congress has enacted 175 temporary spending bills, formally known as continuing resolutions, to avoid doing its job. It’s time to change the way Congress does business.

The November election results showed that hardworking taxpayers are eager for real change. With a new president taking office on Jan. 20, Congress has an opportunity and responsibility to get back to work.

The first step must be fixing America’s broken budget process to provide our nation with a responsible fiscal blueprint and help guide our spending decisions now and into the future. As chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, this will be one of my top priorities in the new congress.

We are a nation on course for a fiscal disaster, because, when it comes to spending money, Congress is like a binge eater. We don’t want to start our diet until right after the next dessert. That attitude has led to a mammoth, oversized national debt that, left unchecked, will crush the prosperity of future generations.

We must start spending within our means and establishing healthy fiscal habits. Unfortunately, America’s broken budget process makes it easy for Congress to spend without ever checking its fiscal waistline.

Currently, only 30 percent of the national budget is annually distributed to federal agencies and programs by Congress. This money funds the activities that most people would associate with good government, such as national defense, education and infrastructure spending. 

We must pass spending bills to fund these government activities every year, forcing a public debate about where taxpayer dollars should be spent.

In fact, this is the portion of the budget that attracts the most congressional scrutiny and debate, and there are limits in place that make it very difficult to spend more than what’s allotted. But it is not growing rapidly and is not the cause of our unsustainable fiscal course.

The real culprit is the other 70 percent of the federal budget that is spent automatically, without regular congressional action or review.

In just 15 years, it will consume all government revenues, as debt interest payments and entitlements continue to grow rapidly. There are no effective limits to the amount that can be spent on this side of the budget, at least until this spending drives America into bankruptcy. 

This is how the budget process makes it easy to spend money. There is regular review and strict limits on the small and shrinking portion of the budget. But the much larger automatic spending programs are not regularly reviewed and can grow almost without limit.

To make matters worse, the historically low interest rates that America has relied on to pay its debt are poised to surge, according to the latest signals from the Federal Reserve. When these rates rise, we can expect to spend more every year on interest payments for these loans than we spend on national defense.

The Senate Budget Committee has been working on reforms that would fix America’s broken budget process. Many of these reforms strengthen the congressional budget, the only existing tool we have that forces Congress to examine all spending and revenues, including automatic spending, over a 10-year period. This budgeting process should be easier to adopt and harder to ignore.

Congress can start by reducing the needless political hurdles to passing a budget and making it harder to ignore overspending once Congress agreed to it.

The congressional budget is easily ignored in the Senate because it takes the same number of votes in the Senate to waive a budget violation that it does to overcome filibuster and pass a bill. The fiscal year 2016 budget was tossed aside in less than five weeks. Our rules should make it harder to pass a bill that busts the congressional budget by requiring more votes to waive the violation. 

We must also create new rules to ensure Congress passes its annual spending measures on time. The current process has been completed on time only four times in the last 40 years, and the last time it was completed on time was in 1998. 

Obviously this year is no exception to the rule. Congress should set aside specific floor time only for consideration of spending bills and enact legislation establishing a two-year spending cycle so that it has more time to review spending and complete its work. It should also enact Sen. Rob Portman’s (R-Ohio) legislation that would end government shutdowns to prevent our annual, end-of-year spending crises.

These reforms and others would begin to create healthy fiscal habits that would force Congress to recognize and begin to address the daunting fiscal challenges that face our country.

I will continue to tirelessly work to get as many of these budget reforms as possible enacted in the new Congress. It’s time to take seriously the crisis that is threatening the future financial solvency of this country. 

The American people have spoken, and we owe it to them to put politics aside and get back to work.

Farmers, ranchers and foresters take great pride in their stewardship of the land. They are the original conservationists. And while it may be popular among some to blame farmers and ranchers for any and every environmental concern that crops up, I know that nobody cares more for the environment than those who work the land every day. When a farm family’s livelihood depends on caring for natural resources, there is an undeniable economic incentive to adopt practices that enhance the land’s long-term viability.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has pursued an agenda seemingly absent of any recognition of the consequences for rural America and production agriculture. Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is creating regulations that are burdensome, overreaching, and negatively affecting jobs and the rural economy. 

Perhaps the most poignant example is the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers’ recent power grab with the “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rule or, as EPA likes to call it – the Clean Water Rule. I’ll be frank – this rule is not about clean water.  Everyone wants and deserves clean water. This rule simply embodies EPA’s insatiable appetite for power. When EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy testified before the House Committee on Agriculture in February, members of the Committee brought forth many concerns with the WOTUS rule. Numerous times, Administrator McCarthy brushed off their concerns with statements that were intended to assure us that farmers would have the same longstanding farming exemptions that were originally included in the Clean Water Act.

These verbal assurances give little comfort to farmers and ranchers who will face steep civil fines for any violation. While the EPA Administrator was telling the farming community they have nothing to fear with the new WOTUS rule, a California farmer was being prosecuted by the Justice Department for simply plowing his field.

The lawsuit brought against this producer claims that by plowing a field, which every farmer I know considers a normal farming practice, this farmer has created “mini mountain ranges” in his field.  These mountain ranges are furrows from normal farming.  The suit also claims this producer discharges a pollutant into a waters of the U.S.  This so-called “pollutant” was the soil he was plowing. 

These perceived violations only came to attention when an overzealous Corps bureaucrat “just happened to be driving by the property” and discovered perceived WOTUS violations on the land.

Regardless of the degree to which some deem government regulation justifiable, all regulations must be developed in a manner that is based on science and mindful of the economic consequences. This rule clearly was not. Farmers, ranchers and foresters believe the EPA is attacking them, and it is easy to understand why.

Instead of using the EPA and Corps’ preferred strategy of fear and intimidation, coupled with punitive enforcement and overreaching regulatory authority, we should be building on the successful approach taken in the 2014 Farm Bill and farm bills prior to protect our natural resources through voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs.

This is Chairman K. Michael Conaway’s prepared remarks for remarks on the floor of the House of Representatives, which intended to draw attention to the negative impacts of EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers’ regulations on farmers, ranchers and rural America.

As USDA has widely reported and producers are all too aware, commodity prices have been significantly declining recently. Nationally, net farm income has dropped 56 percent in the last three years.

While not all agricultural products have experienced such a dramatic drop in price, there are other factors that are creating financial hardships across the country. In Washington, where specialty crop prices are relatively stable and in certain circumstances, even on the rise, access to labor is becoming a perpetual challenge. As a nation, we are reliant on temporary and seasonal workers, often through the H-2A visa program, to meet the labor needs of agriculture. H-2A helps aid the labor-intensive periods of planting, harvesting and migrating livestock.

However, our country’s broken immigration system has caused significant delays in processing and approving visas. In instances where H-2A labor has been unavailable, an unstable and unreliable labor supply has caused fruits and vegetables to rot on the trees and in the field. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost by agricultural producers due to these labor shortages. Regrettably, in recent years, the H-2A program has not been administered in a way that recognizes the seasonal and perishable nature of the agriculture industry.

The administration has worked to improve some of these problems, but more work needs to be done. I was proud to join a bipartisan group of House members to push for meaningful improvements to the H-2A program as part of comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Without reforms, Congress shares in the blame for the labor shortages and delays that have had harmful economic effects on producers.

Meaningful and comprehensive immigration reform is an economic imperative for producers that operate in labor-intensive operations, from fruit and vegetables to dairy and livestock. Since coming to Congress, I have advocated for significant changes to our broken immigration system.

That’s why, in the 113th Congress, I was a lead sponsor of a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform bill, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act (H.R. 15). This legislation would secure our borders, protect our workers, unite families and offer hardworking immigrants an earned pathway to citizenship. Unfortunately, we never had the opportunity to vote on this important legislation, but I remain fully committed to continuing to work toward a balanced, responsible approach to fixing our immigration system.

We must ensure American employers and entrepreneurs can attract and hire the workforce demanded by a highly competitive 21st century economy. Our local employers, whether in technology, manufacturing or agriculture, need an immigration system that works for them and helps sustain and create jobs. That’s why in the 114th Congress, I’ve opposed partisan, enforcement-only immigration bills in the House Judiciary Committee that would hurt Washington’s agriculture and technology sectors and introduced amendments that would prevent significant harm to our local economy.

Unfortunately, sensible discussions around immigration have eroded almost entirely. The shortsightedness of some has come at the expense of individuals, families and businesses across the country. In agriculture alone, there are dozens of states suffering from labor shortages and delayed arrival of H-2A workers. In an already stressed farm economy, these self-inflicted problems are inexcusable and irresponsible. We know all too well that while family farmers provide the base of the operation’s labor, many times it is simply not enough and additional workers are required. There are few individuals who are willing to do these jobs today and erecting higher barriers to entry is simply counterproductive.

It is past time to have a meaningful and constructive conversation about labor and comprehensive immigration reform. As members of Congress head into the August district work period, I would urge Farmers Union members, when meeting with their representatives, to share their stories. Humanizing the debate and demonstrating the economic stakes can only help to move this issue forward. I believe we have a historic opportunity to fix our nation’s broken immigration system in a bipartisan way so that it works for families, farmers and our economy.

This article was originally published by National Farmer’s Union. Visit the National Farmer’s Union online at nfu.org for more information or to read the latest updates from the organization.

Agriculture is the foundation of our livelihood and the lifeblood of rural America. I like to joke with my urban colleagues who say they do not “have agriculture” in their district that as long as their constituents eat, dress and drive, they have a vested interest in agriculture.

I am honored to chair the House Agriculture Committee, one of the most bipartisan committees in Congress, and Ranking Member Colin Peterson is a great partner. The committee doesn’t agree all the time on every issue, but one of the reasons we are able to work together in a bipartisan manner is that we remember well-meaning people can have different ideas about how to achieve the same goal, whatever the issue may be.

Since I became chairman in January 2015, the committee has held 72 hearings, with topics ranging from the state of the rural economy and the importance of biotechnology, to food labeling and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Vilsack has testified three times, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy testified in February, and we have brought up every USDA agency before the committee in each of the last two years.

Last year, the committee reauthorized all expiring authorities within our jurisdiction, aside from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which has been reauthorized by the House; repealed Country of Origin Labeling requirements for beef and pork products; moved legislation to eliminate a duplicative regulatory burden threatening effective public health programs aimed at mosquito control; and passed legislation ensuring national uniformity regarding voluntary marketing claims for products of agricultural biotechnology.

This year, we have continued examining the growing financial pressures in rural America. Farmers are dealing with a steep drop in commodity prices, which has resulted in the largest decline in net farm income since the Great Depression – 56 percent to be exact. If the collapse in commodity prices were not enough, American farmers and ranchers also face a highly distorted global market where several foreign governments are deploying high and rising subsidies, tariffs and other non-tariff trade barriers.

With no rally in crop prices expected and little relief in sight, it is more important now than ever that we maintain the risk management tools that are vital to U.S. farmers and ranchers. According to a recent estimate by the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, these tools – which were reformed in the 2014 Farm Bill – are costing approximately $17 billion less than would be the case if Congress had simply maintained the status quo.

We have also continued our top-to-bottom review of SNAP, a program that spends nearly $80 billion per year and has grown from a pilot program serving 500,000 in 1964 to a program that served more than 47 million Americans at its peak during the recession. SNAP spending has doubled since 2008 with no substantial Congressional review of the goals of the program or whether those goals are being achieved. SNAP now accounts for almost 80 percent of the farm bill budget and serves one in seven Americans. For the millions of families who rely on food assistance during tough financial times, we have to make sure the program serves as a tool to help lift them out of those circumstances rather than trapping them in a cycle of dependence.

The average American household spends 9.8 percent of its disposable income on food – among the lowest in the world. But, for the bottom 20 percent of the income scale, this is not the case. For these Americans, food takes up a much larger portion of their household budget – a whopping 34 percent on average. When we advance legislation in the Agriculture Committee, these people must remain at the forefront of our minds as we work to address varied issues within the food system. We should not make decisions that increase the grocery bill for those who already struggle to make ends meet.

In America, we enjoy access to the world’s safest, highest quality and most abundant food supply. This is not by accident, but through the hard work of America’s farmers and ranchers and as the result of policies designed to promote the safety and stability of the nation’s food supply.

There are very few issues – if any – that nearly all lawmakers in the Wyoming State Legislature can agree on. The one exception would likely be that we all want Wyoming students to have the very best education possible. 

This means providing world-class primary education, well-rounded curriculum, engaging classes, safe environments conducive to learning and the opportunity for vocational and technical training. No matter the economic climate, these shared goals remain a top priority for legislators in Cheyenne. 

Education is perhaps the single greatest investment our state can make. Giving the next generation of Wyoming leaders the resources and tools they need to compete in a global economy will pay dividends for our state in the not-too-distant future. This requires not only an investment of dollars but an investment of our time and talents in prioritizing education.

And invest we have. Over the last two decades, since the Wyoming Supreme Court definitively put the responsibility for K-12 education operations and capital construction in the states’ hands, the Wyoming legislature has invested over $22.3 billion in education. Wyoming school districts will have received over $19 billion for K-12 operations, and $3.3 billion has been appropriated for the maintenance and construction of school district facilities. 

We’ve supported the University of Wyoming and community colleges, grown scholarship funds, prioritized early childhood education and expanded vocational and technical training opportunities. We’ve opened more than 24 new schools and renovated hundreds more, making great progress on the large backlog of school facility projects across the state. 

We’ve also worked to protect education for the future by creating the School Foundation Reserve Account to shield school funding from losses of mineral revenue. 

As a result, Wyoming has consistently ranked as one of the top investors on education funding per student. In recent years, Wyoming has spent approximately $15,700 per student, making us the seventh best state in the nation in terms of education spending. 

What’s more, Wyoming recently ranked eighth in the nation in Education Week’s 20th annual report card on education quality. The 2016 rankings are based on three key factors – the Chance-for-Success Index, K-12 Achievement Index and school finances.

When state coffers have been flush, the legislature spent funds judiciously and strategically on education and school facilities. We made this a top priority and rightfully so. 

Facing revenue shortfalls that will likely continue for several years, the state legislature has had to slow increases in expenditures and, in some cases, trim funding across the board. The state legislature has never been a borrowing operation. We live within our means, just as Wyoming families have to do every single day.  

However, education remains a top priority for lawmakers, and its stability remains paramount. While we simply cannot afford to support every single request, we’re continuing to fund our school facilities, community colleges, the University of Wyoming and many critical educational programs at levels we can sustain for the long-term.  

Our commitment to education goes beyond dollars. There are several bills still under consideration in the House and Senate that would help improve and expand our state’s education system.  

House Bill 80, Community College Recalibration, aims to provide a stable source of funding for Wyoming’s community colleges based on realistic enrollment levels. Wyoming’s community colleges enroll 62 percent of the state’s college enrollment – the highest level of two-year college participation in the nation. Ensuring our community colleges have a steady source of funding they can rely on is critical. 

With the goal of providing diverse educational and training opportunities for Wyoming youth, Senate File 11 would extend the Wyoming National Guard Youth Challenge program through 2025.  

While our funding opportunities are not what they have been in the past few years, one thing has not changed – the Wyoming State Legislature’s commitment to arming our young people with the education and experience they need to be successful. A strong educational foundation opens doors for our citizens, adds value to our local economies and enriches our communities.