House Republicans Outline Proposal to Fight President Obama’s Water and Agriculture Regulations

Last Tuesday, a task force of House Republicans released a regulatory policy agenda outlining what policies Congress should enact to help jumpstart the economy.

Entitled “A Better Way,” this task force agenda offers significant policy proposals that would improve our economy by protecting privacy rights and empowering  businesses to succeed. But good ideas are not enough. Congress must take legitimate action to pass legislation.

Heritage Foundation research fellow in agricultural policy, Daren Bakst, takes an in-depth look at the water and agriculture regulations section of “A Better Way”: 

In the context of the Clean Water Act, there are many things to like in the plan. There’s also an important recommendation regarding a key food and agricultural policy issue: mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food.

Properly interpret the normal farming exception under the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act states that farmers don’t have to secure dredge and fill permits when engaged in normal farming activities. This exception though has been narrowly interpreted to mean only activities that have been “existing and ongoing.” As Heritage recommended in its “Environmental Policy Guide,” all farming and ranching activities should be exempted, regardless of when they began.

The House Republican plan recommends to “codify a complete prohibition on requiring permits for normal farming, ranching, and silviculture activities, as well as pond, ditch construction, and maintenance.”

Modernize the Clean Water Act. Instead of a one-size-fits all approach to regulating water bodies, the report recommends a more flexible approach that shifts more power to the states. According to the report, there should be a “bottom-up” approach.

States are already supposed to play a leading role in the Clean Water Act and work with the federal government, but this principle has been lost as the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continue to seek out more power to regulate almost every type of water imaginable (the report recognizes this federal power grab). The end goal should be to have clean water, and shifting power to the states and local communities is the best way to achieve this goal.

Withdraw the ‘Waters of the United States’ Rule. The House report recommends that the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers withdraw the infamous “Waters of the United States” rule. This extreme rule seeks to regulate every type of water, including man-made ditches and land that is dry most of the year except when there’s heavy rain. The recommendation says that the agencies should go back and start the process again. The problem with this recommendation is there’s little reason to believe that the agencies will come up with anything better. Congress itself needs to take action and properly define “navigable waters,” which are the types of waters that can be regulated under the Clean Water Act.

As stated in Heritage’s “Environmental Policy Guide“:

[Congress should] define the waters covered under the CWA [Clean Water Act], generally limiting federal authority to regulating traditional “navigable waters.” A clear congres­sional definition is critical. In his concurrence in Sackett v. EPA, Justice Alito noted, “Real relief requires Congress to do what it should have done in the first place: provide a reasonably clear rule regarding the reach of the Clean Water Act.”

Prohibit mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food. The House Republican plan points out the many problems with mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food, and recommends that this labeling be in the purview of the federal government. While preemption of state law may or may not be appropriate, the report is certainly correct in being critical of mandates that will mislead, not inform consumers. Mandatory labeling compels speech that misleads consumers, legitimizes bad science, undermines a critical technology, and hurts agriculture (as I’ve explained here).

There are numerous recommendations in this new House Republican report, including many others on environmental issues. When it comes to water policy in particular, the report seems to be on the right track.

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