Congress pushes key Ag issues into 2010

Congress Pushes to the Finish, Pushes Off Some Key Issues
National Association of Wheat Growers

One Chamber of Congress rushed to get home last week, ultimately leaving a number of major issues undone and tough choices for the new legislative session next year.

Surprising many, the House adjourned Wednesday without addressing the estate tax, which is set to expire completely in 2010 and return at higher rates in 2011. NAWG and other agricultural groups have been working to pressure Congress to undertake estate tax reform that instills predictability into the system and takes into account the unique circumstances of family farming operations.

Addressing the nation’s debt limit could also roll into next year. The House passed a bill Wednesday to raise the $12.1 trillion limit by $290 billion, but Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Friday afternoon the Senate might not consider the issue until early January, which would force the Treasury Department to use creative accounting to keep the U.S. solvent.

An omnibus appropriations bill was signed by President Barack Obama, fi nalizing all but one spending bill – the defense measure. The House passed a defense bill by a 395-34 vote on Wednesday before going out of session, and the Senate invoked cloture to end debate on Friday, setting up a vote for Saturday, the day the current continuing resolution expires.

Since it is the fi nal legislative vehicle that must move this year, the bill contains a number of non-defense items, including an extension of surface transportation law that expired Sept. 30; $400 mil-lion for food stamp administrative costs; extensions of unemployment and health care benefi ts for the unemployed; and parts of the Patriot Act.

The legislative issue that’s held up much of the rest of the agenda, particularly in the Senate – health care reform – may or may not be completed before the end of the year, with votes now looking likely on Christmas Eve, a nearly unprecedented event.

An audio update from NAWG’s government affairs staffers Mark Gaede and Cori Wittman looking forward to key issues that NAWG is anticipating in 2010 is available at

Senate Committee Approves Historic Rail Reform Bill

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation approved last Thursday by a voice vote a bill to reauthorize the Surface Transportation Board (STB) and make a number of needed reforms that will improve competitive conditions and transparency in the rail industry and provide improved mechanisms for challenging rates.

The bill, the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act of 2009, S. 2889, was introduced Wednesday by Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) after months of work by key Members, Committee staff and coalition partners like NAWG.

The historic legislation – the fi rst rail reform bill since the passage of the Staggers Act in 1980 – represents a balanced compromise to address the needs of both the shipping community and the railroads. A key component of the bill is a rechartered, more proactive and accessible STB. If fi nalized, ag producers can expect a more responsive and accessible board and new shipper-friendly elements like an offioffi ce of customer advocate and ombudsman program and an arbitration mechanism that is designed to be timely, cost effective and accessible to producers.

The bill was originally cosponsored by Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and John Thune (RS. D.). NAWG applauded the Committee’s action and Rockefeller’s leadership in a press release sent immediately after the mark-up.

“We’ve been working on rail competition legislation for many years, and this is an issue that is vital to our members,” said NAWG President Karl Scronce in the release. “We appreciate all the work done by Chairman Rockefeller and his staff to date and look forward to helping to push this one to the fi nish line.”

NAWG helped spearhead a letter supporting the bill’s introduction, sent Wednesday by 16 agriculture organizations to the cosponsors.

“Nearly 30 years have passed since passage of the Staggers Act, and our nation needs new rail transportation policy to refl ect the reality of the marketplace in the 21st century for both railroads and the shipping communities,” the groups said. “We applaud your work and that of your staff members in developing a fair and reasonable compromise on a bipartisan basis that balances the needs of the agriculture shipping community with the needs of the railroads.”

The full letter and more information about NAWG’s work on rail policy are available at

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