Lots of Nothing Going On in Washington

By Tom Cook, President, National Renderers Association

Washington finally returned to work after the Labor Day holiday. Every year, August brings about a huge exodus in Washington, DC, with most Congress members spending the break in their home states and districts. Some of them will go on “CODELS,” or congressional delegation trips, most of them to foreign countries. Everyone else spends some time at the beach or with their families going somewhere.

It is actually quite nice to stay in Washington in August. There is no rush hour traffic, you don’t have to wait to get a seat at a restaurant, and everything moves at a little slower pace.

The National Renderers Association (NRA) has been waiting to see how the new Obama administration will be operating in the various areas that affect renderers and agriculture. Many key positions in the new administration have not yet been nominated and several that have been nominated have not yet been confirmed. This puts several programs and issues in a holding pattern. Now, this is not all bad, but in some cases, it would be nice to know who we will be dealing with during at least the next four years.

Several of the top posts – such as the Secretary of Agriculture, the Special Trade Representative, and the Food and Drug Administration Commissioner – are all in place. But at the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) and agriculture offices, the key positions below the top posts have not yet been filled. NRA signed on to a coalition letter recently to the White House Personnel Office urging the naming of the USTR agriculture trade negotiator. This is a very important position. Whoever gets the assignment will have the important responsibility of managing the various agricultural trade negotiations and disputes.

The Obama administration has been slow to give much direction on trade. There are three major free trade agreements (FTAs) that were negotiated during the previous Bush administration that wait for some action. So far it appears this administration has not given the agreements a high priority. If this administration doesn’t like what the Bush administration did, then tell us what they would do differently. The point is that while the United States does nothing with its trading partners, other countries are negotiating their own FTAs, putting us at a competitive disadvantage worldwide.

It is also unusual that an Under Secretary for Food Safety has not yet been named at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), nine months into this administration. This is particularly troubling in that food safety is supposedly a high priority in both the administration and Congress. Food safety is important. There are some in Congress, and the administration, that would like to do a major overhaul of the entire system, so wouldn’t you think that someone from the USDA should be sitting at the table during important meetings representing agriculture’s interests?

I don’t have to report here what has dominated the political scene in Washington for the past several months, and will for the next several months – it is healthcare. At this time, my crystal ball gazing is no better that anyone else’s. Until the healthcare issue is resolved, not much else will happen legislatively. However, the appropriations process does continue in Congress with agricultural appropriations bills proceeding well in both the House and Senate. Both chambers have passed their own appropriations bills and will now go to conference to work out their differences. Both versions have full funding for the USDA Foreign Market Development and Market Access Programs, with NRA working closely with the Coalition to Promote U.S. Agricultural Exports to secure these funds. The NRA has a cooperative program with both of these USDA programs that is beneficial to the association in its export development and promotion activities.

Also of interest, in both the House and Senate bills, is the lack of funding to continue the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). This was to be a national identification program for all livestock and poultry. The raging debate has been between those who want a mandatory program and those who want a voluntary program. USDA has already spent millions and millions of dollars attempting to set up a program without much to show for it. Congressional appropriators, in their frustration over the lack of a program, have cut off the funding until they see more results.

Some sectors of the livestock and poultry industries support a national mandatory program. However, many, especially cattle producers, are passionately opposed to a mandatory program.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack underestimated the seriousness and complexity of the program when he first became secretary. He held a meeting in Washington, DC, of 29 industry organization representatives that were all given three minutes to make statements. He told the group that if the industry didn’t come together in support of the program, Congress would cut off the funding. Vilsack probably didn’t realize at the time that about half of the people in the room wanted exactly that to happen. He then organized a series of meetings with producers and industry representatives throughout the country that brought out huge crowds, mostly of people opposing the NAIS. Similar to the town hall meetings in August on healthcare, there was a lot of passion on display. The future of NAIS is currently up in the air.

From the Association – October 2009 RENDER | back