November 5, 2019
Congress returned to session the week of September 9. All recent hot-button issues remain on the table, with only limited progress being made on any of them. The limited number of legislative days remaining in the year, impeachment-related hearings, and the pending 2020 elections put pressure on Congress to take action on disaster relief, trade, and immigration as well as passing budgets; however, the budgets are the only things that require action be taken.
Ag Budget Status
Before leaving for their August recess, the House and Senate both passed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019, and it was signed by the president. The comprehensive two-year deal raises the spending caps and sets the top-line spending for both discretionary defense and non-defense programs at about $1.37 trillion for FY 2020, which is about $50 billion higher than the FY 2019 level. While the overall base is set, federal agencies are currently operating under a stopgap continuing resolution (CR), which will expire on November 21. Either budgets or another CR need to be passed by that time to keep the government operating. The House passed their Agricultural Appropriations bill prior to the recess. On the Senate side, the Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2020 has been passed by the Committee on Appropriations but still needs to be brought up for a vote by the full Senate and then conferenced with the House version. The House version prohibits the use of funds for relocation of NIFA and ERS, whereas the Senate bill does not. Given USDA action that has been taken on the move, it is unclear what House leadership may seek to do. Both the House bill and the Senate proposal maintain or have small increases in research funding while rejecting proposed extramural research project terminations and laboratory closures requested by the administration.
America Grows Act
On September 10, Senator Richard Durbin (IL) introduced S.2458 – America Grows Act of 2019. It has since been referred to the Committee on the Budget. If passed, the America Grows Act would authorize a 5% annual funding increase over the next five years for research activities at the USDA, specifically for the following agencies:
- Agricultural Research Service (ARS), USDA’s chief in-house scientific research agency with 90+ locations nationwide and overseas.
- National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which funds external research through a nationwide network of land-grant colleges and universities, agricultural experiment stations, schools of forestry, schools of veterinary medicine, and cooperative extension.
- National Agricultual Statistics Service (NASS), which collects and reports statistics on US agriculture, such as the farm census, crop forecasts, and price estimates.
- Economic Research Service (ERS), which provides economic and policy analysis on farming, ranching, food, conservation practices, farm management, commodity markets, and rural economic development.
Subsequently, Representatives Cheri Bustos (IL-17), Kim Schrier (WA-08), and Jimmy Panetta (CA-20) introduced a companion bill in the House that includes identical language. Co-sponsors are being sought in both houses. While the prospects of passage are not high, the proposals provide a vehicle to advocate for increases in research funding. FASS, along with many other science-focused organizations, has indicated support for the legislation through coalition letters to legislators. The letters can be found on the FASS Science Policy site.
Trade Agreements (or Lack Thereof)
As noted in previous reports, trade talks continue on several fronts with promises of expanded agricultural purchases and additional positive results to come, but as of the beginning of October, none are complete. Congress continues to negotiate modification of the proposed US, Mexico, Canada agreement prior to taking it up for a vote. There appears to be at least a pause in the tariff battle with China, and Chinese officials have indicated that there is progress toward an agreement, with higher levels of agricultural purchases likely. This may be due in part to the fact that their swine industry has been devastated by African swine fever. News reports indicate that it has wiped out up to one-third of China’s pig population, so there is a strong demand for pork. Progress has been reported with Japan as well, but details remain limited with no timeline for finalizing either. One certainty is that US exports have lagged substantially, resulting in lowered farm income, which is increasing pressure to reach agreements.
USDA ERS and NIFA Move
In spite of congressional instructions to USDA to provide them with more economic justification for the move and an evaluation of the impact on science of the move, as well as concerns raised by the science community about the short- and long-term impacts, USDA proceeded with the move of ERS and NIFA personnel to the Kansas City area. They are now experiencing the problems that were expected. Of the 547 positions scheduled to be relocated to Kansas City, only 16 ERS and 45 NIFA employees had made the move by early October. According to a USDA spokesperson, the ERS had 10 new employees and NIFA had three new employees as of September 23, with four new ERS staff members and one new NIFA staffer set to start work by the end of the month. This has left the agencies grossly understaffed and struggling to fulfil many of their responsibilities. USDA has been trying to rehire a number of retired employees on a part-time basis, through the end of the year, to work in DC and complete a number of reports that are required by law. The next couple of months should provide a more complete view of the impact of the USDA action on reports and grant administration.
FASS Inc. Science Policy Coordination Activities – September 2019
During the month, the science policy coordinator participated in a webinar hosted by AAAS titled “Characterizing genetic and epigenetic influencers of CRISPR-Cas genome-wide nuclease activity using CHANGE-seq.” It included discussion of some of the current regulatory challenges relative to gene editing. We continue to interact with other professional science groups to monitor pending action in Congress and at the USDA so that we can respond as needed. Work continues on reviewing and updating FASS Science Policy statements.
Please contact me if you have questions, ideas, or suggestions on any of these issues. We will provide additional information as it becomes available. We need to work together to maintain a strong and effective national research effort. If you are interested in communicating occasionally with members of Congress on issues related to animal agriculture, we are looking for FASS science policy advocates. Please contact me for details.