Congress adjourned last week for its summer recess and, with elections scheduled in November, isn't expected to take any action until after voters weigh in. A look back at five key moments for South Dakota during Congress' work in 2014.
FARM BILL AT LAST
After months of delays, near-misses and extensions, Congress approved a massive, $100 billion-a-year farm bill in early February. Crucial for many South Dakota ranchers, the bill restored expired disaster programs that could provide relief after an early-season blizzard in October killed more than 20,000 cattle, sheep, horses and bison in South Dakota and parts of North Dakota and Nebraska. The bill includes dozens of other provisions that will guide farm policy until 2017, including locking in conservation policies and tying subsidies for farmers to compliance with conservation initiatives. The bill also gives more flexibility to the Forest Service when dealing with the health of forests and allows them to treat some areas before they are affected by pine beetles - a big issue in the Black Hills.
The farm bill gave retroactive coverage to farmers and ranchers who took heavy losses in the October blizzard. But it didn't automatically mean the money would flow quickly. After a push from South Dakota lawmakers and President Barack Obama to get disaster relief programs up and running quickly a top priority, the Department of Agriculture was able to accept applications within 60 days of the farm bill's passage. Under the last farm bill, which was enacted in 2008, it took more than a year to restore expired programs and begin taking applications.
SMALL FARM SAFETY
Lawmakers pushed back aggressively when they thought the Obama administration was considering increasing its regulations on small farm operations. After fierce pushback, they received assurances in February that the Occupation Safety and Health Administration had no such plans. Since 1976, Congress has categorically forbidden OSHA from regulating small farms. But Department of Labor action in 2011 appeared to open the door to doing just that. The U.S. Department of Labor announced that it was withdrawing the memo to avoid any confusion and clarified that the memo was never meant to change longstanding policy.
South Dakotans can continue to use Missouri River water free of charge after all. The Army Corps of Engineers had floated a proposal that would have levied a fee for use of water from the river and its reservoirs. But South Dakota lawmakers joined with others from neighboring states to push back against the proposal. When Congress approved a massive water projects bill in May, it included language that expressly forbids the Corps from any proposal that charges for river water for at least 10 years.
END OF AN ERA
Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson will return to Washington after the summer break and again after November's elections. But the man first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986 has just about wrapped up his work in Congress. South Dakotans will elect a new senator in November - choosing between Republican Mike Rounds, a former governor, Democrat Rick Weiland, a businessman and former staffer for Sen. Tom Daschle, and independent candidate Larry Pressler, who served South Dakota in Congress as a Republican representative and senator. Johnson, who will finish his Senate term while serving as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, announced in March 2013 that he wouldn't seek another term. Rounds is favored to win the seat.