By Micky Burch, Contributing Writer
Just when one thought the dust was about to settle on the mid-term elections with the Republicans taking back the U.S. House of Representatives and the Democrats leading the Senate after a run-off in Georgia, the Jan. 3 swearing in of the nation’s newly elected leaders was quickly followed by a deadlocked GOP over the who should become the new speaker of the house that took five days to finally play out.
As a point of review, on Nov. 8, 2022, all 435 of the U.S. House of Representatives districts were up for election. Ultimately, Republicans won 222 districts, while Democrats took 213. On the Senate side, Democrats retained control and gained a seat, ending with a total of 51, while Republicans ended the election with 49 seats.
While the chaos continues on Capitol Hill, issues affecting cattlemen and all of agriculture are quickly coming to forefront. On Dec. 30, 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced yet another finalized definition of the Clean Water Act’s waters of the United States (WOTUS). According to the agencies, WOTUS will include traditional navigable waters, territorial seas and interstate waters; impoundments of WOTUS; tributaries to traditional navigable waters, adjacent wetlands and intrastate water features that have “relatively permanent” flow to traditional navigable waters or have a “significant nexus” with those waters.
The regulations extend jurisdiction to tributaries (rivers, streams, etc.) that “alone or in combination with similarly situated waters in the region significantly affect the chemical, physical or biological integrity” of other jurisdictional waters, including traditionally navigable waters. Wetlands adjacent to such tributaries are also jurisdictional under the new act, as well as certain intrastate waters that have either a continuous surface connection or significant effect on other waters.
This definition of WOTUS unravels Trump-era regulatory reforms, which reduced government overreach of the Clean Water Act. Known then as the “Navigable Waters Protection Rule,” the Trump-era rules were first ignored by the federal district court in Arizona, even though the Navigable Waters Protection Rules remained on the pages of the Code of Federal Regulations, when the EPA and the Corps of Engineers began following the 1986 WOTUS rules.
“For too long, farmers and ranchers have dealt with the whiplash of shifting WOTUS definitions,” said National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) Chief Counsel Mary-Thomas Hart in a Jan. 3., 2023, press release. “Today, the Biden administration sought to finalize a WOTUS definition that will protect both our nation’s water supply and cattle producers across the nation. While the rule retains longstanding, bipartisan WOTUS exclusions for certain agricultural features, it creates new uncertainty for farmers, ranchers and landowners across the nation.”
According to the press release, “NCBA previously called for the EPA to retain agricultural exclusions for small, isolated and temporary water features that commonly appear on farms and ranches. These exclusions have broad support and were included in WOTUS rules under both Republican and Democratic administrations. The rule fails to clearly exempt isolated and ephemeral features from federal jurisdiction and relies on ‘case-by-case’ determinations to assess whether a feature is federally regulated. Today’s rule is a far cry from the regulatory certainty provided by the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, creating a significant and costly burden for agricultural producers.
“The timing of this rule could not be worse,” Hart added. “The Supreme Court is currently considering Sackett v. EPA, which will provide much-needed clarity related to the WOTUS definition. Today’s final rule seeks to directly preempt ongoing Supreme Court litigation, leaving farmers and ranchers with more questions than answers.”
In the case of Sackett vs. EPA, the Supreme Court is deciding if the scope of the Clean Water Act should be lessened.
Government Spending and the Thrifty Food Plan
“We’ve had a lot of extraordinary government spending beyond normal budgeting over the last couple years since the beginning of COVID; the federal deficit reflects that,” said Ethan Lane, NCBA vice president of government affairs, on an Oct. 20, 2022, Beltway Beef podcast titled “The Election’s Impact on the Cattle Industry.”
“You’re going to see a lot of these incoming members of Congress really keyed in on that and really focused on where money’s going out the door, where we’re spending too much and where they can tighten the belt,” he continued.
Prioritizing just that, newly elected Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture for the 118th Congress Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Penn.) and Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, called for a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Thrifty Food Plan.
According to https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/thriftyfoodplan, the Thrifty Food Plan is one of four food plans USDA develops that estimates the cost of a healthy diet across various price points – Thrifty, Low-Cost, Moderate-Cost and Liberal – with the Thrifty Food Plan as the lowest cost of the four. It represents a nutritious, practical, cost-effective diet prepared at home for a reference family defined as an adult male and female, ages 20 to 50, and two children, ages 6 to 8 and 9 to 11. (This definition does not impact household eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP).
According to a Dec. 14, 2022, House Committee on Agriculture press release, the GAO found that the process by which the Thrifty Food Plan was updated was flawed by egregious executive overreach, lacked an economic peer-review process and included faulty decision making that resulted in a cost to American taxpayers of more than a quarter-trillion dollars, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The GAO’s evaluation indicates that USDA neglected to provide documentation or justification for decisions, did not seek out or provide sufficient information for independent, external peer-review and did not meet any project management standards.
“For USDA, sidestepping Congress seems to have become a habit, but today’s report from GAO details a particularly egregious effort to pull the wool over the eyes of the public as it relates to the Thrifty Food Plan Update,” Thomson said in the press release. “USDA failed to fully disclose its rationale for decisions, to document its process and outcomes, and to sufficiently analyze the impacts of its choices, leaving taxpayers to foot the $256 billion bill. I am grateful to Comptroller Dodaro and his team for looking into this.”
“This report shows the problems with this process are far greater than USDA merely cutting corners,” Boozman added. “It is evident that the department’s political leadership set out to achieve a predetermined outcome and purposefully ignored important steps in the process that would get in their way. This is the opposite of good governance, and it shows that poor decision-making happens when the administration operates in a vacuum without proper oversight.”
In August 2021, the two Republican leaders sent a letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro asking GAO to review the process by which the 2021 Thrifty Food Plan Update – the basis for maximum SNAP benefits – was reevaluated to ensure it was conducted with the utmost integrity and credibility and is based on sound data. Currently, the largest component of the Farm Bill – around 80 percent – is SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps.
The elections are over and the new leaders are sworn in. While we Americans had to practice patience and acceptance during the long election process, we now have to find belief in and support our newly elected leaders.