View from the Hill Newsletter

State of the Union: ‘We Must Reclaim Our American Values’

By Nicole Palya Wood, National Grange Legislative Director | nwood@nationalgrange.org

On January 24, the President delivered his third State of the Union Address before a packed Joint Session of Congress, praising the fact that for the first time in nine years, there is not an American soldier fighting in Iraq and that we no longer have to suffer the threat of Osama Bin Laden. He did steal a line from the Jon Huntsman campaign when he mentioned that we still have “nation-building” to do, it is just back here at home.

The President focused the jobs portion of his address on two areas: creating more jobs through American manufacturing and natural gas exploration and production. The auto industry was touted as a best practice in what should happen after a bailout with regard to recreating themselves, and an invigorated market share both here and internationally. Other unionized manufacturing companies such as Masterlock were commended for moving more jobs back from overseas, and tax laws that allowed companies to receive tax breaks for moving jobs offshore were criticized.

In citing his recent jobs tour, the President said that he asked small businesses what they needed in order to create more jobs. The President felt the answer was in simplifying the tax code. The elephant in the chamber was the omitted mention of the Keystone Pipeline project recently nixed by the Administration and rumored to have created 6,000 to 20,000 private sector jobs should it have been permitted to move forward.

In an attempt to lesson American reliance on oil and ties to unstable regions, the President called on Congress to look at all sources of energy, particularly natural gas, off-shore drilling and wind energy, deeming the approach an “all of the above” strategy. Parts of the plan include expanding drilling permits off-shore by 75 percent and on public lands, as well as passing more tax breaks for those who invest in energy efficiencies. The Department of Energy will be instructed by the President to utilize natural gas resources on public lands to the threshold that will power 3 million homes and provide an estimated 600,000 new jobs.

In an about-face from his education focus on innovation and technology in his last State of the Union address, President Obama announced a more rudimentary proposal that would require students to stay in school until they either graduated or turned 18, and also reiterated his support for legislation like the DREAM Act. The President addressed reigning in student loans and called the ability to afford a college education “an economic imperative, not a luxury.”

Laughter was able to slice through the hostile atmosphere of the chamber only once, after the President had mentioned the dairy industry’s victory over a senseless regulation that would have required them to spend $10,000 annually on a spill prevention plan. Dairy producers had been subject to this rule because milk was classified as having oil in it. Obama commented, “With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk.” Unfortunately, the President did not mention other initiatives to cut regulatory red tape and almost nothing was mentioned in the way of other regulatory relief for the Agriculture sector.

The President closed by summarizing the work that needed to be done on the deficit and called for immediate passage of a more permanent payroll tax break. He also recommended that Congress work towards spending the money we are no longer spending on fighting wars by using some to pay down the national debt.

Grange Opposes Farm Child Labor Law

By Grace Boatright, National Grange Program Assistant | gboatright@nationalgrange.org

The National Grange recently filed comment with the Department of Labor (DOL), opposing their proposed changes to current child labor laws as applied to children working in agriculture.

The proposed changes are vast and affect nearly every area of the daily operations of a family farm; including limiting youths’ ability to operate farm machinery, assist in the farm-product raw materials wholesale trade industry, and be in close-proximity to large farm animals. The Grange believes the DOL proposals are unnecessary and overreaching.

The DOL has suggested that, in the interest of their safety, employed youth should be prohibited from operating any and all power-driven equipment on farms. This includes tractors, farm trucks, ATVs, irrigators, shredders and other machinery commonly found on America’s farms. Currently, subsections 570.71 (a) (1) through 570.71 (a) (9) provide student-learner exemptions that allow youth to obtain training under supervision. The DOL proposal would eliminate this exemption, possibly discouraging youth from seeking training altogether and could even suppress their interests in farming and agriculture. In addition, the sooner youth learn to perform these important tasks, the sooner they can perfect them and become more competitive in today’s labor market. The Grange suggested that the DOL withdraw the proposal.

There are three subsections of the DOL SIC 515 regulations that deal with minors’ ability to assist in the farm-product raw materials wholesale trade industry, and the department’s proposals would alter all three of them. Under new proposed regulations, youth would be prohibited from “all work performed in conjunction with the storing, marketing, and transporting of farm-product raw materials…” The specifics of this proposal are vast, but they especially refer to the harvesting and curing of tobacco products, being within close proximity to grain elevators, and coming in contact with large farm animals. Just these stipulations alone would have a huge impact on the ability of youth to assist with daily farm work. Without their help in harvesting and curing tobacco products, farmers will be forced to hire outside help, adding to the operating expenses of an industry already facing extreme financial burdens, and creating an unsafe working environment for other farm employees who will be left shorthanded.

Keeping youth safe from injuries due to grain elevators is perhaps what initiated this reevaluation of youths’ role in farming. According to Purdue University, there were 26 deaths arising from grain elevators in 2010. Unfortunately, six of these fatalities involved individuals under the age of 16. The DOL has now taken it upon themselves to protect minors working on farms. Sixteen does seem like a large number; however, on average, 300 children under the age of 5 drown each year in swimming pools.

As for minors being in close contact with large farm animals, according to the department’s proposals; “Dangerous situations presented by farm animals include: ‘territorial protection, maternal instincts, social relationships, or simply an interruption of their normal habits,’” and thus they would like to prohibit minors from working near them. This regulation could have a far-reaching impact of any of the DOL proposals, as animals are found on nearly every farm or ranch in the country. The DOL has assured concerned parties that its proposals will not affect those participating in 4H, FFA, Ag in the Classroom, and other youth-oriented agricultural activities, as youth are not being employed by anyone in these scenarios. However, youth employed by 4H or FFA during their events would be subject to the proposed rulings as they are now in an employment situation, receiving money in exchange for their services. As youth often comprise much, if not most, of the staff at 4H auctions and similar functions, the Grange is concerned that their involvement could become violations should the department’s proposal come to pass. By discouraging participation in these educational programs, these proposals would be devastating to the Grange’s goal of preserving and enriching the legacy of our nation’s farms and farm families.

Complicating things further, the department has indicated that their proposed regulations do not apply to children working on their parents’ farms. This creates more ambiguity as farm and ranch ownership gets more and more complex. The Grange has suggested to the DOL that they clarify (1) who qualifies as a parent, (2) what legal status determines whether a farm or ranch is “operated” by a parent, and (3) what happens in the occasional temporary absence of that said parent. Farms owned and operated by grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and other family members would not exempt youth from these regulations, although they are still technically “family” farms. This exemption will only create more paperwork and America’s family farms are already burdened with unparalleled compliance issues and costs.

As a family organization, the safety and well being of our youth is a top priority for the Grange, for we know that we are training tomorrow’s farmers and ranchers. Bestowed with that responsibility, we understand that it is necessary to provide a safe and secure setting where our youth can develop their interests in agriculture and carry that knowledge into the future. Regulations that prohibit youth from obtaining that knowledge are ultimately counterproductive to the larger legacy of training tomorrow’s growers. The DOL proposals, though well-intentioned, are far too encompassing and limiting to America’s farming youth.

Obama Seeks Authority to Consolidate Agencies

By Nicole Palya Wood, National Grange Legislative Director | nwood@nationalgrange.org

Last week, before a crowd of over a 1,000 at the National Farm Bureau Federation Convention in Honolulu, Dept. of Agriculture Secretary Vilsack announced that his cabinet department, which employs over 100,000 workers, will close 249 offices. In the last 15 months, 7,000 USDA workers have accepted buyouts or early retirement offers.  The announcement comes as the President has made Congress aware that he will be seeking expanded authority to streamline the federal government and consolidate the Commerce Department.

The USDA is just one of 14 cabinet departments to offer large scale buyouts of its workers since 2010 when the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) gave this authorization. In 2011, a dozen departments got the same nod to offer buyouts.

In November, the IRS offered 5,400 buyouts, the GeoSpatial-Intelligence Agency will offer 150, and with the President wanting to do away with Commerce, as part of his Consolidation Authority Act, many more will be offered in 2012.

The White House proposal aims to save $3 billion over the next 10 years by consolidating the six federal agencies which deal with trade and business. The plan would merge the Commerce Department, the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Trade Representative, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, the Export-Import Bank, and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, as it deems these agencies “redundant and inefficient.” The move, if successfully passed with fast-track priority through Congress, could cut an additional 2,000 full-time federal positions.

Many of the suggested efforts contained in the act have come from the GAO report dated March 2011, which highlighted duplicated federal efforts and the findings of the Government Reform for Competitiveness and Innovation Initiative, created by Obama to uncover inefficiencies and redundancies.

In 1984, Congress passed a law which restricted the powers of the Executive branch to reorganize the federal agencies. Congress would have to reverse this measure in order to allow the President to make these changes. Opponents of the President and Republicans, even those dedicated to a smaller federal footprint, will be hesitant to give the President tools that he could then use to gain momentum over the threshold of a second term.

President Obama has said that the current government is outdated and needs to be streamlined for a more modern 21st century approach and considers the issue of government downsizing a bipartisan one. However, Congress seems a bit reluctant to jump aboard any ship that may give the President a boost in his ratings before the November elections.

Egg Producers, HSUS Jointly Petition to Ban Battery Cages

By Grace Boatright, National Grange Program Assistant | gboatright@nationalgrange.org

Two groups traditionally opposed to one another have agreed to offer a joint petition to ban battery cages in the U.S., and effectively define for the first time the “humane” treatment of animals on farms if the legislation should pass.

The United Egg Producers, an organization representing roughly 87 percent of all egg producers in the U.S., reached the agreement with the Humane Society of the United States to propose regulation to ban battery cages nationwide and replace them with “enriched colony cages,” seen by most as being more humane to chickens.

Battery cages are roughly 18-inches by 20-inches and usually house four to five chickens at a time. Advocates of the proposal say the tiny and overcrowded nature of battery cages provide cruel living conditions for America’s egg-laying chickens. In contrast, enriched colony cages would provide twice as much room for hens to move about, and are equipped with structures for nesting, scratching and perching. According to farmsanctuary.org, there are currently 280 million hens living in battery cages and the proposed regulations would eventually faze them out completely by 2029.

UEP estimate that the proposal would cost American farmers and ranchers roughly $4 billion to implement over the next 15 to 20 years. Other ag groups, such as Eggs Farmers of America, American Farm Bureau, National Farmers Union, and the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, have begged to differ, estimating for themselves that the new regulation would cost over $10 billion to implement and would also eliminate jobs and reduce choices for consumers.

Ag groups worry that the passage of such legislation is a slippery slope that could result in an abundance of federal regulations aimed at farm animal treatment.

Opposing groups recently sent a letter to the House Agriculture Committee. The groups stated that the proposal is “an unconscionable federal overreach” that would establish “costly and unnecessary animal rights mandates,” and ensure that “Congress will be in the egg business for years to come.”

This issue is expected to come before Congress early this year.