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The importance of agriculture to Wisconsin cannot be overstated; the industry provides more than 10 percent of the state’s employment and generates nearly $60 billion in economic activity annually.  In 2013, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that more than 99 percent of the nearly 77,000 farms statewide are family-owned.  Further, Wisconsin has justifiably been nicknamed “America’s Dairyland,” as the second largest producer of dairy in the country.  Milk, corn, fruits and vegetables, cattle, and soybeans are just a few of the products that come from the more than 15 million acres of farmland in Wisconsin.

Agriculture in the House-passed Budget

Compared to the overall economy that is recovering slowly, the American agriculture sector has remained a strong economic success story.  The record-breaking prosperity of American farmers and farm communities is to be celebrated. But it also calls for a re-examination of federal agricultural programs that spend billions each year.  Taxpayers should not finance payments for a business sector that is more than capable of thriving on its own.

The 2014 Farm Bill reformed commodity programs, most notably by eliminating Direct Payments.  However, this area remains ripe for reform.  The House-passed budget would have provided $6.1 billion in budget authority and $6.0 billion in outlays for discretionary spending in agriculture for Fiscal Year 2016.  The budget also took into consideration the savings that the Farm Bill achieved and then proposed that additional savings be found.  These could be achieved by continuing to reform assistance programs for agriculture.  Farmers would benefit greatly from other provisions in this budget, including regulatory relief, fundamental tax reform, and stronger economic growth.

The Farm Bill

The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, also known as the Farm Bill, expired at the end of Fiscal Year (FY) 2012—which was September 30, 2012.  Since that time, Congress has passed several pieces of legislation that temporarily extended the Farm Bill in order to give the House and Senate Agriculture Committees time to develop a comprehensive, long-term bill to reauthorize federal agriculture and nutrition programs.  In October 2014, the House and Senate agreed to form a Farm Bill conference committee to resolve any policy differences between the two chambers' versions of the farm bill.  On January 27, 2014, this conference committee reached an agreement and introduced the Farm Bill Conference Report.

The House considered the conference report to H.R. 2642, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013, on January 29, 2014.  This conference report would authorize federal agriculture programs through FY 2018 and cut $16.6 billion in spending, including $8 billion from common sense reforms to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  These reforms include a provision that would allow up to ten states to develop pilot programs that require SNAP recipients to participate in employment and training programs in order to receive benefits, as well as partially closing the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) loophole, which will ensure that states participating in LIHEAP pay for a greater share of the program.

One of the biggest changes was the repeal of the direct payments program, which provided financial assistance to farmers regardless of whether or not they grew crops and based on revenue shortfall.  Additionally, it reformed commodity programs so that payments made to farmers are more closely tied to market conditions. The House passed the conference report to H.R. 2642—with my support—by a vote 251 to 166 on January 29, 2014.  On February 4, 2014, the Senate passed the conference report to H.R. 2642 by a vote of 68 to 32, and on February 7, 2014, President Obama signed the bill into law.

Despite my concerns with certain provisions of this bill, I voted in favor of the conference report to H.R. 2642 because I understand that, in divided government, no party will get everything it wants.  Although I wish this bill had tightened eligibility standards for crop subsidies—a reform that would help small family farmers rather than bankrolling large agribusinesses—I believe that ultimately, the good in the bill outweighed the bad.  This bill will save more money than if Congress did nothing, and, it will provide some much-needed certainty to family farmers in Wisconsin and across the nation.

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 and FY 2016 Consolidated Appropriations

Each year, Congress must pass a budget agreement to set overall spending levels.  The budget resolution is used as a framework to guide the 12 individual appropriations bills that must be passed annually in order to fund the federal government.  As you may know, Congress passed H.R. 1314, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, which was then signed into law by the president on November 2, 2015.  This bill made adjustments to previously agreed upon caps and set the top line spending levels for the federal government for FY 2016. 

With the Bipartisan Budget Agreement of 2015 signed into law, members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees worked to draft an omnibus appropriations bill to fund the federal government, and on December 15, 2015, H.R. 2029, the Consolidated Appropriations Act for FY 2016, was introduced.  The bill combines the 12 separate appropriations bills into a single bill and provides funding for the whole government through September 30, 2016.  This $1.1 trillion appropriations bill is the product of a process that I have long criticized, a process that is too closed and driven by crisis and brinksmanship instead of by collaboration and big ideas.  That said, as speaker, I had a duty to take ownership of the process that I inherited and, in doing so, I worked hard with my colleagues to make the best of the situation in order to produce a bill that will allow the House to return to regular order.

The bill provides $21.75 billion in discretionary spending for the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and related agencies.  This is an increase of $925 million from FY 2015, and $1.1 billion more than the House-reported bill, due to the higher allocation in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.  It prioritizes production, research, and marketing programs to aid America’s farmers and ranchers.  Investments were also made to important programs relating to rural development, food and drug safety, nutrition, and conservation, all of which are crucial to our economic growth.  The bill contains a provision to repeal mandatory Country of Origin Labeling requirements, which are meant to allow consumers to know where animals in beef, poultry, and pork products come from. The repeal will ensure that these meat products are no longer in violation of World Trade Organization trade standards, risking more than one billion dollars in the U.S. economy through trade retaliation by other countries.  Finally, regulatory relief was provided to grocery stores and food retailers by securing a year-long delay in menu labeling compliance. This labeling rule, which was a requirement of the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, would have required stores and restaurant chains to start posting the calorie counts of their food. While it is important that consumers have easy access to nutritional information, there were too many outstanding questions regarding the details of how the final rule would be applied to certain covered entities.

The consolidated appropriations bill, H.R. 2029, was passed in the House on December 18, 2015—with my support—by a vote of 316 to 113.  Later that same day, it was passed by the Senate and signed into law by President Obama.

Immigration

Immigration policy has a direct impact on agricultural employment in Wisconsin.  Many farmers have historically relied on seasonal labor to assist with farm work.  Due to a shortage of seasonal H-2B visas, which permit employers to temporarily hire foreign workers when businesses are faced with annual labor shortfalls.  Dairy farmers, on the other hand, require year-round assistance and are largely unaffected by seasonal worker visas. Reforms to immigration policy should include expanding access to visas for seasonal and temporary labor and a temporary guest worker program, complete with an employee verification system that allows employers to verify the legal status of their employees.

The omnibus bill for FY2016 contained a provision that provides greater certainty for farmers and small businesses that hire seasonal workers.  In 2015, the demand for H-2B workers exceeded supply.  Therefore, the annual cap of 66,000 H-2B visas was hit, leaving many employers short-staffed and causing others to lose H-2B employees that they have relied on for years.  The situation in 2016 is expected to be even worse.  H.R. 2029 contained the “returning worker" exemption which states that if an H-2B worker has been counted against the annual cap in one of the three prior years, that worker can return to work in the H-2B program in the current year without being counted against this year's cap.

By providing a method to legally link employers with legal immigrant workers, we would relieve pressure on the borders from people who attempt to illegally immigrate to the United States in search of employment.  In turn, government agencies would have the ability to more effectively allocate resources to illegal and unauthorized aliens who mean to do us harm – criminals, terrorists, and drug smugglers.

Dodd-Frank

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which was signed into law in July 2010, is a lengthy and complex law designed to implement wide reaching financial regulatory reform.  Unfortunately, the overhaul involves radical changes to financial regulation – changes that will affect every feature of our financial-services industry, increase the power of current financial regulatory agencies, and create new ones. Dodd-Frank promotes the rule of bureaucrats to our economic detriment and has had negative impacts on the agricultural industry.  House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway has considered changes to the Dodd-Frank regulation, which could help relieve the industry from burdensome regulation.  As the committee continues to examine these proposals, I will remain vigilant in monitoring their development as it relates to farmers in the First District of Wisconsin.

Conclusion

Agriculture is a cornerstone of both Wisconsin’s culture and economy.  As I continue to work with my colleagues on the important issues facing the 114th Congress, I will ensure farmers are in a competitive international position, while making sure we get our economy and job creation growing again.

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