HARRISBURG, Pa. — Ending the partial government shutdown is the first step for Washington to help farmers this year, according to U.S. Sen. Bob Casey.
“The most important thing we should do is to vote to open up the government,” said Casey, D-Pa., while drinking a vanilla milkshake on Jan. 5 at the Pennsylvania Farm Show.
Casey is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
The new five-year Farm Bill became law Dec. 20, giving farmers a reason to stop by their local Farm Service Agency offices to learn about changes that might affect them.
But just eight days after President Donald Trump signed the law, FSA offices closed because of lack of funding, one week into the shutdown that has affected many federal agencies.
Casey argued Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should take a vote on a spending package recently passed by the House, which came under Democratic control at the beginning of the month.
But McConnell, a Republican, has said he will not take up a bill unless it has the president’s support.
Casey said he thinks the bill would pass the Senate if given a vote.
“It would still allow us to continue to have an important debate about border security and how best to do that, but that could be done between now and February, and then we’d have another deadline,” Casey said.
The Senate passed a resolution on Dec. 19 to fund the government into February, but the plan unraveled after Trump demanded more than $5 billion for a border wall expansion, one of his signature campaign promises.
Debating just the border security piece of immigration reform likely won’t help farmers who want a revamped ag guestworker system.
Farm groups say the current H-2A visa program is cumbersome and a bad fit for year-round producers like dairy and mushroom farms.
Casey supports reintroducing a comprehensive reform bill similar to one that passed the Senate in 2013.
The bill could be updated to include an accommodation for people who were brought to the United States illegally as children.
“In one bill, you could have a new immigration policy to fix our broken system,” he said.
Still, Casey doesn’t see such a sweeping bill going anywhere this year unless Trump makes it a priority.
Beyond the shutdown crisis, Casey expects the Senate Ag Committee this year will set about ensuring that the Farm Bill gets implemented well.
That will require pressing USDA to do its job and providing annual appropriations that supplement the program authorizations and funding in the Farm Bill.
“We’ve got to make sure the dollars are there for Farm Bill programs,” he said.
The law includes a farm-to-food-bank program, championed by Casey, that is modeled on a Pennsylvania state initiative.
Under the program, farmers can be reimbursed for production and storage costs for food that is donated to a food bank because it is safe to eat but doesn’t find a market.
In the coming legislative session, Casey also plans to support improvements to high-speed internet access and aging infrastructure in rural areas.
“If we care about rural America, we should invest in rural America,” he said.
News editor Philip Gruber contributed to this report.