October 27, 2019

October D.C. Update

Washington Roundup – October 2019

By: Lowell Randel

Senate Begins Floor Action on Four Bill Appropriations Package

On October 22nd, the Senate approved a procedural vote to begin consideration of an appropriations package to fund the departments of Agriculture, Transportation, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Interior and Justice, plus the FDA, EPA and National Science Foundation.  The move comes as House and Senate leaders continue to wrestle with overall spending allocations for appropriations bills and other controversial issues such as funding for the border.  While bringing the package to the Senate floor shows some signs of progress, it is becoming increasingly likely that another stopgap continuing resolution will be needed before the current extension expires on November 21st.

America Grows Act Introduced in House

On October 17th, the America Grows Act was introduced in the House of Representatives.  The bill, sponsored by Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL) is companion legislation to S. 2458, which was introduced by Sen. Durbin (D-IL) in September.  Identical to the Senate version, H.R. 4714 would authorize a five percent annual funding increase over the next five years for research agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  Authorization for appropriations for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Economic Research Service and the National Agricultural Statistics Service would be increased by five percent each year from FY 2020 through FY 2024.  In addition, the legislation would exempt appropriations under the America Grows Act from future budget sequestration.  As previously reported, ASAS has joined over 90 organizations in supporting the legislation. 

House Holds Hearing on Research Title Implementation

On October 17th, the House Agriculture Committee held a hearing to examine USDA’s implementation of the Research Title of the 2018 Farm Bill.  The lone witness was REE Deputy Under Secretary Scott Hutchins.  Hutchins’ testimony highlights the importance of USDA research, education and economics programs and the department’s progress on implementing certain sections of the 2018 Farm Bill.

Hutchins stated that the following Implementation actions have been taken:

• Published the Request for Applications (RFA) for the Organic Agriculture Research and

Extension Initiative (OREI) and is in the process of finalizing awards;

• Published the updated matching requirements chart and indirect cost chart on its website

and sent an update to stakeholders so that they are informed of the changes the 2018

Farm Bill made to NIFA’s many grant program requirements;

• Published the RFA for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program

(BFRDP) component of the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach and is in the

process of finalizing awards;

• Published a Federal Register Notice regarding new Non-Land-Grant Colleges of the

Agriculture certification process. NIFA currently has certified 39 Non-Land-Grant

Colleges of Agriculture using the updated definition;

• Published the RFA for the 1890s scholarship program, which was championed by

Representative Scott, with applications due on November 2019. NIFA’s goal is to ensure

that these funds are available for 1890 land-grant institutions to begin awarding

scholarships for the next academic school year; and

• Provided guidance to 1890 land-grant institutions regarding the change to carryover of

funds for extension at these institutions.

Hutchins also provided an update on the relocation of ERS and NIFA to Kansas City.  He informed the committee that the transition of personnel is underway and that over 100 recruitments are in process to bring new staff to the agencies.  Of the employees who chose not to relocate, 149 have found new jobs with the federal government, 123 of whom are staying within USDA. 

Democratic members of the committee were particularly critical of the relocation effort and expressed great concerns about the number of vacancies in ERS and NIFA and the impact those vacancies will have on awarding grants and delivering the results of research.  Hutchins acknowledged that there are significant vacancies and that the department is utilizing a variety of tools to mitigate the impacts of the transition.

USDA Inspector General Launches Investigation into Department’s Climate Science Policies

On October 21st, the USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) confirmed that it has begun an investigation into how USDA policies may have impacted climate science and communication.  Democratic lawmakers had requested such an inquiry and the move was praised by Democrats on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees.  According to the OIG, the objective of the investigation is to to determine whether changes in policy and/or processed impacted the publication of scientific reports, documents, and/or communication of USDA research results during Fiscal Years 2017-2019.  The OIG is also planning to analyze the department’s allocation of resources and staff related to climate science.