By Dave Carlin, IDFA Senior Vice President of Legislative Affairs and Economic Policy
As Congress returns to Washington from its winter break, we thought it would be useful to provide you with a brief update regarding the steps Congress took in 2015 to help the dairy industry, as well as highlight the policy items that remain on the congressional to-do list for 2016.
2015 Congressional Accomplishments
Early last year, Congress worked with the administration to resolve a long-standing labor dispute at West Coast ports that was causing significant delays for exporters, including dairy businesses. Although an agreement was reached in late February, it would be months before the congestion at the 29 affected ports was cleared.
Congressional leaders also began the process of reauthorizing federal child nutrition programs, including the school lunch and breakfast programs. IDFA coordinated with other dairy groups to brief key members of Congress and their staffs regarding the need for federal policy changes to address alarming declines in school milk consumption. Working with the House Dairy Farmer Caucus, we hosted a bipartisan congressional briefing to highlight recent research conducted by the National Dairy Council on milk’s important nutritional benefits, particularly for children.
In May, a bipartisan group of House Members introduced the School Milk Nutrition Act which would permit schools to offer a wider variety of milk in schools and to take other steps to increase school milk consumption. At a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing in June, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack voiced strong support for the intent of the legislation, stating, “In terms of the nutritional bang for the buck, there’s probably nothing better than a glass of milk.”
Last spring, we joined with other industry representatives to encourage Congress to pass Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) legislation in order to pave the way for the administration to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement later in the year.
The labeling of genetically modified (GMO) foods or foods with GMO ingredients received considerable attention in the House of Representatives where IDFA represented the interests of dairy companies as an active participant in the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food. The House passed a voluntary GMO labeling bill last summer by a strong bipartisan vote of 250 to 175.
IDFA was also active in promoting policies to further transportation efficiency. In November, Congress passed a five-year reauthorization of the federal highway trust fund that included a provision allowing states to issue permits to allow trucks carrying fluid milk products to exceed federal truck weight limits. Unfortunately, a broader amendment that would have given states the authority to increase truck weights on interstate highways was defeated on the House floor.
The House Agriculture Committee held a series of oversight hearings late last year regarding U.S. Department of Agriculture programs, and the issue of Federal Milk Marketing Order reform was discussed at one of the hearings. IDFA continues to educate members of Congress and congressional staff on the need to reform this program. Also, the Sugar Reform Act of 2015 was introduced, but there was no opportunity to vote on this legislation last year.
Finally, Congress passed an omnibus funding bill and tax extenders package at the end of the year that included language repealing the Country-Of-Origin Labeling (COOL) requirements for muscle cuts of meat. Repealing COOL prevented Canada and Mexico from imposing retaliatory tariffs on U.S. exports, including dairy products. The bill also contained language that would delay implementation of further sodium reductions in the school lunch program – a provision that IDFA supported.
In addition, the year-end package included a provision that will increase charitable deductions for food donations by raising the cap on giving and allowing small businesses, partnerships and individuals donating food to qualified nonprofits, such as the Great American Milk Drive, to take the same enhanced tax deduction as corporations have been permitted to take since 1976.
2016 Congressional ‘To-Do’ List
Many of these policy issues will receive further congressional attention in 2016. However, because this is a presidential election year, increased partisanship and an abbreviated congressional calendar (Congress will be in session less than 100 days in 2016) could make further progress on some issues more challenging than usual.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) have promised that the first item of business on the Committee’s agenda in January will be to mark-up a child nutrition reauthorization bill. We are working closely with the National Milk Producers Federation to encourage the Committee to include language similar to that found in the School Milk Nutrition Act in the broader reauthorization bill, which we hope will be passed by Congress sometime this year.
In addition, the food industry, including dairy companies, will continue to press Congress to approve legislation that would preempt Vermont and other states from imposing a patchwork of confusing and costly GMO labeling requirements. An effort to include a federal preemption in last year’s omnibus appropriations bill was unsuccessful, but a bipartisan group of congressional leaders and Secretary Vilsack plan to convene a stakeholder meeting this month to try to develop a compromise bill that can pass Congress early this year.
Congress may also hold an up-or-down vote on the TPP agreement this year, although many observers believe consideration of the agreement will be postponed until the lame-duck congressional session following the November elections.
Congressional committees are also expected to hold hearings and perhaps consider legislation on a number of other issues of interest to our industry, including food labeling requirements, food waste, drought and climate change, and immigration reform. In addition, we will continue to look for opportunities to educate Congress regarding the need to reform the Federal Milk Market Order system and the U.S. sugar program to permit more competition and greater innovation in the marketplace.
For more information on IDFA’s 2016 congressional agenda, contact Dave Carlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.