Committees prep their agendas — but will anything really get done?

Source: E&E • Posted: Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Congress is returning to Washington, and the partisan rancor that defined Capitol Hill in 2011 is likely to remain — or get even worse — in 2012.

Republicans still run the House. Democrats continue to cling to a slim majority in the Senate. President Obama seems determined to keep his distance from both chambers. And it’s an election year — what are the odds of anything getting done this year?

Of course, with re-election uppermost in everyone’s mind, political considerations may make someaction on some energy and environmental measures an imperative. But it’s hard to predict which ones will become a priority.

Obama releases his proposed fiscal 2013 budget next month. Congress will then have six months to fight about it, or ignore it, and chances are that when the new fiscal year begins, a series of stopgap measures will be necessary to keep the government running.

The battles won’t be pretty. But they — along with the campaigns, of course — will be what occupies Washington during the next year.

What follows is a look at the likely agendas for key congressional committees over the next several months:

HOUSE ENERGY AND COMMERCE

THE AGENDA FOR 2012

The House Energy and Commerce Committee will continue its assault on the Obama administration, casting EPA regulations as job killers.

“Jobs remain our top priority,” a spokesman for the panel told E&E Daily, “which is why we plan to focus this year on the tremendous job-creating potential of American energy development and work to identify any impediments standing in the way of safe and robust expansions in energy production.”

Specifically, the panel will continue to pressure the Obama administration to sign off on the Keystone XL pipeline, monitor discord at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and examine the commission’s handling of the potential waste site at Yucca Mountain, Nev. And as gas prices rise, the panel will delve into alternative fuel sources.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Keying in on Keystone XL: The committee will continue to press the Obama administration to sign off on the Keystone XL pipeline. At the end of December, the committee posted a clock on its website counting “President Obama’s Keystone XL Delay.” Last week, more than 100 industry and business groups sent Obama a letter urging him to OK the project because of Iran’s recent threat to block the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil route. The payroll-tax-cut package Congress passed before the end of the year requires the president to make a decision by Feb. 21.

Gas prices galore: Focus on the Keystone XL pipeline will dovetail into a general discussion on gas prices, particularly if they continue to rise heading into the election. In particular, expect the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy to examine alternative fuel sources such as biofuels.

Notching up pressure on NRC: Committee aides say there will be continued scrutiny of the discord between NRC’s commissioners and Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who many Republicans say should be fired. The committee will renew its focus on how NRC has handled the Energy Department’s application to build a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, which the president has pulled the plug on. Specifically, the committee is sure to comb the president’s Blue Ribbon Commission report on nuclear energy, which is due to be released by Jan. 29. The panel’s draft document, released in July, contained several recommendations, including a government-chartered corporation to build and operate interim waste storage facilities (Greenwire, July 29, 2011).

Eyes on EPA: Committee Republicans will continue to hammer a wide range of EPA regulations as job killers. Hearings are likely on the topic, and it is likely EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson will again find herself in the hot seat testifying before the committee.

Airing of grievances: Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) has indicated he will renew his focus on the Clean Air Act and EPA’s recent regulations to rein in air pollution. One likely step is legislation that would codify the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR), a George W. Bush-era statute designed to control air pollution that drifts over state lines. A federal court struck down the rule in 2008 saying it did not go far enough, and Obama’s EPA finalized its replacement — the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR) — last July. CSAPR has been strongly criticized by Republicans and industry, and a court stayed the rule before it was supposed to go into effect Jan. 1, leaving CAIR in place for now.

– Jeremy P. Jacobs

 

HOUSE NATURAL RESOURCES

THE AGENDA FOR 2012

Energy development on the nation’s lands and waters will continue to set the agenda for the Natural Resources Committee in 2012.

Expect to see plenty of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and his agency heads on the witness stand as the committee continues its assault on the Obama administration’s policies.

“Republicans on the committee will continue to focus on creating new American jobs, reducing the debt and federal deficit, protecting access to our nation’s natural resources and conducting oversight of the administration’s policies and actions,” said committee spokeswoman Jill Strait.

Last year saw 115 hearings and markups of a dizzying number of bills. “I think 2012 will be equally as busy,” Strait said.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Cutting red tape: The committee’s focus will largely mirror last year’s agenda: job creation through increased energy development on public lands and waters. Expect early action on a trio of bills introduced late last year that would allow oil and gas leasing in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and reinstate a scrapped George W. Bush administration plan to promote oil shale development in the West. The bills, which are designed to raise new revenues to shore up the Highway Trust Fund, will see action “in the coming weeks or months,” according to a statement this month by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) (Greenwire, Jan. 9).

Renewables: The committee will continue seeking ways to streamline the federal permitting process. A committee aide said Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) plans to push for House passage of four bills his panel reported last July that would shorten National Environmental Policy Act reviews for low-impact renewable energy projects. A committee aide said the panel will explore other ways to unlock the vast potential to site wind, solar, hydro and other energy projects on public lands.

Endangered species: In addition to NEPA, the committee will seek to overhaul the Endangered Species Act, a nearly 40-year-old law critics contend has stymied access to domestic resources. At its first hearing on the matter last month, Republicans on the committee blamed the frequency of citizens’ lawsuits that many argue have hamstrung the Fish and Wildlife Service (E&E Daily, Dec. 7, 2010). The committee will hold additional oversight hearings to examine the law’s strengths and weaknesses and explore potential improvements. The committee may also review a landmark settlement between the Obama administration and environmentalists that will force the administration to issue final listing decisions on hundreds of species over the next five years.

Oversight: The committee will continue its oversight of major Obama administration policies, including its five-year offshore leasing plan, a proposed rewrite of the Office of Surface Mining’s stream buffer rule, national ocean planning and the folding of OSM into the Bureau of Land Management. The committee heard from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar shortly after he released the agency’s five-year leasing plan, which calls for continued sales in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, but excluded the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, angering Republicans. Expect to see much more of Salazar on the witness stand as his agency finalizes the leasing plan and issues other decisions on Alaskan offshore drilling, hydraulic fracturing regulations and oil shale.

Oceans: Hastings plans to continue his campaign against the administration’s National Ocean Policy. Spurred by last week’s release of a draft implementation plan, Hastings said he would hold additional hearings to vet the policy, which he warned could place portions of the ocean off-limits for recreation, fishing or development. Hastings held two hearings last year on the plan, targeting it as a “burdensome” federal effort that could destroy jobs and hinder economic growth. Marine advocates applauded the plan.

Access: Republicans will continue attacking Obama policies they argue have unfairly locked up public lands. While no markup has been set, the committee will continue to push a bill to release tens of millions of acres of forests the Clinton administration placed off-limits to roads and timber harvests. The bill, which would also lift interim protections by the Bureau of Land Management, is the greatest threat to public lands in a generation, environmentalists have warned. Expect a continued focus on land management decisions, including the new Forest Service planning rule, that could affect access for motorized users like off-highway vehicles and snowmobiles.

Democratic defense: Committee Democrats led by Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts will continue to portray the majority as beholden to fossil fuel interests, pointing to its failure to consider the ranking member’s proposal to implement offshore drilling reforms recommended by the president’s BP spill commission. They will continue to point to deficit reduction measures that target oil industry tax breaks; leased, but undeveloped, public lands; and royalty-free mineral development. In addition, committee Democrats say they will fight hard to stifle Republican attempts to allow oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, new uranium claims near the Grand Canyon and limit or reduce funding for land acquisition and conservation. The minority will also promote accelerated development of solar, wind and other clean energy on public lands.

Staff changes: Republicans began last session with around 17 staff but are beginning this year with more than double that amount, a committee aide said. Democrats welcome Amelia Jenkins, a former Energy Department staffer, to lead the committee’s public lands and parks efforts. The committee’s Office of Oversight and Investigations now has three staffers, but it no longer includes Morgan Kim, the former Ethics Committee staffer who was hired to run the office when it was launched last March. A committee aide said the office is examining the Obama administration’s proposed stream buffer zone rule and ocean zoning policy. The office last year investigated payments to attorneys in the Cobell Indian trust settlement but is yet to issue a report on the matter.

– Phil Taylor

 

SENATE ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES

THE AGENDA FOR 2012

Despite an impressive track record at clearing energy and public lands measures, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee didn’t see a single measure debated on the Senate floor in 2011.

Retiring committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is likely to keep the pressure on Senate leaders to take those measures up in the full chamber as his time in the Senate comes to a close at the end of this year. And he’ll also likely encourage discussions of his upcoming clean energy standard legislation.

The measure isn’t likely to gain much traction among Republicans in either chamber — a fact Bingaman acknowledges — but he says it will still be important to start debate on the issue.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

CES: Bingaman has vowed to float legislation early this session that would create a federal clean energy standard requiring utilities to generate a certain percentage of their electricity from low-carbon sources in the coming decades. Once introduced, the measure is sure to get ample face time in the committee, but partisan roadblocks in the full Senate and a sure death in the House will likely prevent it from moving beyond the panel.

Smaller bipartisan bills: The committee last year cleared dozens of smaller energy bills on a bipartisan basis — many of them breakouts from a broad 2009 energy bill that stalled in the full Senate — but none have seen floor time. Bingaman will likely push Senate leaders to move on some of those measures as he sees the clock ticking on his time in the Senate.

Offshore drilling: Efforts last year to advance offshore drilling safety language stalled after ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) urged the inclusion of coastal revenue-sharing language in a bill responding to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Bingaman isn’t likely to advance the legislation this session, but the committee could take a look at other offshore drilling issues, such as Interior’s five-year leasing plan. Republicans and the oil industry want to see the areas included in that plan beefed up, while environmentalists and many Democrats say it already infringes on too many sensitive areas.

Energy technology financing: The committee last year steered clear of a scandal surrounding a DOE loan guarantee to the now-bankrupt solar firm Solyndra, with Bingaman instead saying he would rather take a look at energy technology financing gaps between the United States and its international competitors, like China. The committee this year could hold legislative hearings on the international issue, but the shadow of Solyndra will likely return as the committee wades into discussions of the president’s budget request for fiscal 2013, which is due out early next month.

Nuclear: Small modular nuclear reactors could be discussed in the committee again this year after Congress appropriated $67 million to a new DOE research program that will provide licensing and first-of-a-kind engineering support for small modular reactor designs that can be built in factories and assembled on-site. Bingaman and Murkowski worked together on legislation last year to fast-track licensing of the reactors, and the panel cleared the bill last summer. But that measure is currently stalled in the full Senate.

Public lands: Despite expected controversy, Republicans foresee discussion of a Murkowski public lands proposal at the panel’s first public lands markup. Her bill would allow Sealaska Corp. to acquire lands in the Tongass National Forest outside of acres made available to it for selection in a decades-old federal law. The measure has bipartisan backing in the House, but it is strongly opposed by conservationists and the Obama administration, who fear it would allow the cutting of old-growth timber in sensitive areas of the forest. The panel could also advance dozens of less contentious public lands bills that could earn a unanimous consent agreement in the full Senate.

–Katie Howell

 

SENATE ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS

THE AGENDA FOR 2012

For true political polar opposites, look no further than the EPW Committee leadership of Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.), whose antithetic political philosophies reflect the ideological gridlock typical of this committee. But even these fire-breathing partisans agree on one thing: the need for more spending on transportation and water infrastructure.

Both see it as a way to create jobs and keep the U.S. economy healthy. This explains why normally feuding Democrats and Republicans on the EPW Committee unanimously — that’s right, unanimously — approved a $109 billion surface transportation bill last year. In addition to their usual partisan sparring, expect Boxer, Inhofe and their staffs to labor behind the scenes to push a slimmed-down transportation bill and Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) through Congress this coming year.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

WRDA: The 2012 version of this perennial earmark Christmas tree would likely be leaner than its predecessors, assuming such a bill materializes at all. Projects selected for a possible 2012 WRDA could be more regionally, as opposed to locally, focused so as to avoid the toxic “earmark” label. Proposals couched as Army Corps of Engineers reforms might also be good candidates for a piling into a potential WRDA. Although the deadline for congressional offices to submit requests to the committee has been delayed several times, rumor has it that a real deadline will be set within weeks. Of course, even if a WRDA bill does pass committee, it remains an open question whether a multibillion water infrastructure bill could proceed any further, given the deep anxiety on the Hill over federal spending.

Transportation: Although the committee did unanimously approve language for a two-year, $109 billion surface transportation reauthorization bill in November, Boxer and Inhofe must still walk a tightrope to shepherd the bill to the Senate floor while keeping both parties happy. The biggest question mark remains the Finance Committee’s work to close a $12 billion funding gap. But the real trouble could come with policy language when the bill comes to the floor. Republicans — including Inhofe — have questioned the need for a set-aside for transportation enhancements like bike paths, which will face opposition despite reforms. Boxer will also have to oversee possible amendments to the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, high-speed rail funding and rail safety.

Water infrastructure: Everyone agrees that the nation’s sprawling network of water and sewer plants and pipelines are an aging, decrepit mess. Some estimate that needed repairs, replacements and expansions will cost upward of $1 trillion in the next two decades. The problem for local, state and federal governments: paying for it. EPW Republicans and Democrats alike recently called for more spending in this area (E&E Daily, Dec. 14, 2011), although specific proposals have yet to emerge. Expect to see legislation to reauthorize, for some amount, the state revolving funds that loan money to utilities for upgrades, as well as perhaps proposals designed to attract more private investment, which all sides see as the only viable way forward in these lean times.

Regulatory battles: Expect Boxer to continue to schedule hearings and work on the floor to defend Obama administration air and water regulations from GOP attacks. Boxer led a successful effort to stop Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) attempt to use the Congressional Review Act to strike down EPA smog and ozone emissions rules. Paul said he would not stop there — a move to roll back the utility MACT rule could be next — but Boxer has vowed to keep playing defense.

NRC oversight: Another hearing is expected early-on regarding NRC issues, which include ensuring that policy changes inspired by the nuclear meltdown in Japan are implemented.

General Services Administration oversight: Democratic committee leaders will also press on efforts to improve energy efficiency and the environmental footprint of government buildings, which they cast as a way of creating jobs and shrinking the government’s electricity bill.

–Paul Quinlan

 

HOUSE TRANSPORTATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE

THE AGENDA FOR 2012

With two major measures — a Federal Aviation Administration and a surface transportation bill — up for action, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will have to move beyond the partisan slog on the Hill.

Passing the FAA bill before the Jan. 31 expiration and moving quickly to the surface transportation bill before the March deadline are the unquestioned priorities for the panel.

Luckily, after a year of delays, the transportation bill got a major boost thanks to an endorsement from House leaders, who want to pass the bill as a jobs package and are urging chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) to move it quickly.

But like everything in Congress, the devil is in the details. Though leaders agree that something has to be done, there is little agreement so far between the House and Senate on how to fund vital transportation programs — and for how long.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Transportation reauthorization: Once a long-term compromise with Democrats on the FAA bill — or another short-term extension — is on the books, the committee will turn to a long-awaited, multi-year surface transportation bill. The bill, pegged at five years with at least current funding levels, will draw additional funding from a suite of domestic energy production bills that will move through the Natural Resources Committee, as well as another source that has yet to be announced. Democrats say they have yet to see key sections, which the committee could release as soon as early February. The bill will likely include reforms to the environmental review process and could cut funding to bike and pedestrian infrastructure or public transit.

Rail and Amtrak: The committee will continue to probe President Obama’s investment in high-speed rail, a pet issue of Mica’s. A bill that would have wrested control of the Northeast Corridor from Amtrak to offer it up to private bidders is being retooled, Mica announced last fall, but the committee is expected to bring it up again in some form — it could even be written into the transportation reauthorization, although it will likely move independently. Mica and Railroads Subcommittee Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) also turned their attention to California’s high-speed rail line at a hearing at the end of 2011 and could revisit the issue.

EPA stormwater regulations: Water Resources Subcommittee Chairman Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) has signaled his intention to hold hearings on controversial new stormwater regulations that EPA is expected to propose this year (E&ENews PM, Dec. 14, 2011). The “post-construction” stormwater rule would require that newly developed property include features that would allow the land to absorb as much rainfall as if the land was left in its natural state. Fans of such regulation say the rule would deliver extraordinary gains in water quality, while critics, including Gibbs, warn that the rule could be the most expensive ever developed by EPA.

Water infrastructure: Republicans and Democrats are expected to debate competing measures to address badly needed maintenance and expansions to the nation’s aging, failing drinking water and sewer plants and pipelines, which will require $1 trillion in upgrades over the next two decades, by some estimates. Water Resources Subcommittee ranking member Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation (H.R. 3145) that would inject $13.8 billion into state revolving loan funds to help finance the work. Republicans have said they will unveil their own proposal in the coming months after holding a hearing on the subject.

Maintaining ports and harbors: U.S. ports and harbors are also in bad need of maintenance. The problem, per usual, is how to pay for it. The waterway shipping industry will be watching the committee closely to see whether its beloved, so-called RAMP Act — which stands for “Restore America’s Maritime Promise” — gains traction, perhaps as part of the surface transportation bill. The bill would require the full amount of an ad valorem tax levied on goods imported through U.S. docks gets spent for its intended purpose: port and harbor maintenance. But it is not that simple, according to Bishop, who has said spending caps established as part of the debt-limit agreement last year will require that additional spending on ports and harbors must first be offset by other parts of the already-overstretched Army Corps budget (E&E Daily, Oct. 28, 2011).

FEMA reauthorization: The committee also hopes to consider a reauthorization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency that could include reforms to better free up money and resources after a natural disaster. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), who leads the subcommittee overseeing emergency management, has called for FEMA reforms to slash red tape, especially after a disaster.

–Jason Plautz

 

SENATE COMMERCE, SCIENCE AND TRANSPORTATION

THE AGENDA FOR 2012

The Commerce Committee will continue focusing on its highest priority — consumer protection — in the upcoming year.

With transportation language and possible work on a fishing and oceans bill also on tap, the panel could have plenty of work on its plate.

But before the panel can address those issues — along with science funding and overseeing the nation’s rail system — Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) must continue negotiating a FAA authorization ahead of the Jan. 31 expiration.

Even if Rockefeller and Hutchison are able to reach an accord on long-term transportation funding — and the two generally work well together — the committee’s work is complicated by the fact that other Senate panels also have a say over the package. And there are still wide areas of disagreement between the House and Senate over how to pay for transportation projects over the next several years.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Rail and aviation: Although the committee passed a package of highway safety bills as part of the Senate’s surface transportation reauthorization, the panel will also move language governing freight and passenger rail and infrastructure spending. Rockefeller said in December that those items would come up early in the year as the Senate works toward passing a two-year bill. Along with that, the committee is expected to continue looking into high-speed rail investments and safety, as well as Amtrak management. The panel also oversees aviation and last year held a number of hearings on clean jet fuel.

Oceans and fishing: The Commerce Committee this year could bring up a bill that would crack down on pirate fishing on the high seas after high-ranking leaders on the panel introduced legislation to implement part of a U.N. treaty on illegal fishing. The “Pirate Fishing Elimination Act” would bar ships engaged in illegal fishing from entering U.S. ports and offloading their catch. It is one of three bills that lawmakers have introduced to implement the “Port States Measures Agreement” treaty. The Oceans Subcommittee is also hoping to advance a bill that would free up federal agencies for oil spill response and promote responsible maintenance of Arctic resources. The subcommittee will also continue work monitoring genetically modified salmon and ensuring that they do not escape holding areas.

Hazardous Chemicals: After looking into toxic drywall from China and the policies regarding the transportation of hazardous materials, the committee is expected to continue its work on protecting consumers from dangerous substances. The committee may continue to work on pushing a recall of the toxic drywall — linked to some 4,000 complaints across 43 states — after a December hearing shed light on the issue.

–Jason Plautz

 

HOUSE, SCIENCE, SPACE AND TECHNOLOGY

THE AGENDA FOR 2012

House Science Chairman Ralph Hall (R-Texas) and Rep. Andy Harris, the Maryland Republican who chairs the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, made their biggest goal in 2011 to stand over EPA’s shoulder on everything from new air pollution standards to chemical risk assessments.

Their panel does not have jurisdiction over the actual regulations but expect Republicans to stay in the EPA oversight mode in 2012, when the agency could propose new rules for refineries, greenhouse gases from power plants and the hydraulic fracturing techniques used in oil and gas production.

Harris’ subcommittee has already scheduled a Feb. 1 hearing called “Fractured Science” to examine EPA’s research into possible groundwater contamination from drilling in Pavillion, Wyo.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Overseeing shrinking budgets as renewables, fossil fuels vie for their share: With jurisdiction over energy research and development programs that got a one-time boost from President Obama’s stimulus bill and now face budget cuts, Hall’s committee will advise appropriators on how to parcel out money in a political minefield. Majority committee staff say Republicans will keep asking to give priority to DOE’s Office of Science over the programs that mainly fund clean technology, such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, which will be put under the microscope during a Jan. 24 hearing of the committee’s oversight panel. When it comes to fossil fuels, they will seek basic research that could make energy production more efficient and less polluting, rather than commit money to capital-intensive pilot projects for technologies such as carbon capture and storage, committee staff say.

Expect the usual arguments: Republicans will say they want to stop the Obama administration from “picking winners and losers” with its support for renewable energy, but Democrats, who want government research money going to work that will hasten cleaner forms of energy onto the marketplace, will make the case that Republicans are fine with letting government meddle in the marketplace when it benefits oil, gas, nuclear and coal.

Boosting U.S. stockpiles of rare earth minerals: The need for a secure supply of rare earth minerals used in electronics, clean energy technologies and specialized alloys proved last year to be a rare area of agreement in the committee — and a problem where the possible policy solutions do not fall neatly along Democratic and Republican lines. Committee members such as Reps. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) and Brad Miller (D-N.C.) have both introduced bills meant to lessen U.S. reliance on the world’s dominant producer, China, but despite the bipartisan interest, committee leadership hasn’t yet shown an appetite for moving them. This might be the year, though Hall and Harris have not yet signaled whether they would prefer loan guarantees for new mines, a focus on recycling or funding for research and development that the private sector wouldn’t handle on its own. The committee might also choose to take a backseat to the House Natural Resources Committee, where Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) shepherded a similar bill to the House floor last year.

Debating nuclear’s future and rehashing the Yucca Mountain closure: Energy policymakers on the Hill will pay more attention this year to the long-discussed idea of a “nuclear renaissance” in the United States, as well as the question of how to handle the roughly 70,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel being kept at reactor sites in the absence of a federal waste repository. The presidential Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future is expected to send its report to Congress in late January or early February, while a federal appeals court has scheduled oral arguments this May on DOE’s abandonment of the Yucca storage site, bringing a high-profile issue in the Science committee’s jurisdiction to the forefront. Committee staff do not expect any legislation to come of it but expect high-ranking Republicans to keep making noise about President Obama’s decision to kill the Nevada repository, especially if they disagree with his commission’s policy prescriptions and if the court finds fault with the handling of Yucca.

–Gabriel Nelson

 

HOUSE AND SENATE AGRICULTURE COMMITTEES

THE AGENDA FOR 2012

After spending 2011 holding field hearings and getting new committee members up to speed, the House and Senate committees will use a good deal of the year to moving the 2012 reauthorization of the nation’s agriculture policy.

Agriculture leaders hope to have the sweeping five-year farm bill on the House and Senate floors by May based on a proposal they wrote in November.

That proposal, meant to be included in the supercommittee’s recommendations, came under sharp criticism by some interest groups and lawmakers, who accused the leaders of sidestepping the open democratic process.

This year, the bill will be subject to markups and amendments, a process that will greatly slow momentum. In between hearings on the bill, the Agriculture committees will also likely continue oversight of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission and MF Global. On the House side, expect to see EPA taking another beating this year over regulations.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Farm bill: Both the House and Senate Agriculture committees plan to begin hearings and markups on the 2012 reauthorization of the farm bill within the next few weeks, but interest groups aren’t convinced it will be complete by the elections or even by the end of the year. Committee members face pressure on all sides over changing risk management programs and farmer subsidies, along with consolidating conservation programs. It is also unclear how the next appropriations bill and across-the-board sequestration cuts will affect the process. But everyone seems to agree on one thing: Pushing the bill back to 2013 will only mean less money for farmers and ranchers.

Dodd-Frank: The Agriculture committees will continue oversight hearings as the U.S. Commodities Futures Trading Commission finalizes rules to carry out the 2010 financial reform act. The House Agriculture Committee has been more vocal on the issue, calling CFTC officials to testify five times in 2011, but members in both committees are concerned that rules will burden utilities and rural small businesses that use financial transactions to hedge their risks. Also, the House committee is expected to advance legislation to keep regulators within the scope of the Dodd-Frank Act.

EPA regulation: The House Agriculture Committee will likely continue oversight of U.S. EPA’s pollution cleanup diet for the Chesapeake Bay as states draft and implement plans to comply. House committee members have been sympathetic to their concerns. Agriculture groups also expect pesticide permitting and other EPA nutrient and water regulations to play a role this year.

MF Global: The House and Senate Agriculture committees ended 2011 holding hearings on the collapse of investment bank MF Global, calling former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) to testify. As the year closed, House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) promised that in the coming months, his committee will “continue to press for information about how customer funds disappeared” and examine whether any changes are needed in the investment banking system.

Food Safety Modernization Act: President Obama signed the FSMA, a broad reform of food safety laws, in January 2011. Although the act is not technically under the Agriculture committees’ jurisdiction, agriculture interests and lawmakers will likely react when the Food and Drug Administration releases regulations and call for hearings.

– Amanda Peterka