Watchdog says foreign farmland ownership needs better oversight

Legislative Watch: Threat to food, national security; Congress passes stopgap; Bill introduced to repeal estate tax.

Eric Bohl

January 19, 2024

3 Min Read
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A new report released by the Government Accountability Office says that the federal government does not have sufficient systems in place to monitor foreign farmland purchases for threats. This lack of oversight can result in security risks, such as foreign ownership of land near military installations.

USDA estimates that in 2021 about 40 million acres of farmland had foreign owners. However, its collection systems are outdated, relying on paper forms that are not easily compiled or reviewed.

“USDA needs to collect, track and share the data better, and developing a real-time data system would help,” the GAO report concluded.

In response to the report, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Penn.) and Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) issued a joint statement saying, “Growing foreign ownership of U.S. farmland, particularly by China, poses a direct threat to our food security and national security. Safeguarding our farmland and food supply requires a whole of government approach and we will continue to work with the impacted agencies, related committees, and leadership to continue our robust oversight and to identify legislative vehicles to address the findings of the GAO report.”

Congress passes stopgap

With a last-minute extension of funding on Thursday, USDA and FDA once again avoided a shutdown. The Senate voted 77-18 to pass the stopgap bill, and the House quickly followed with a 314-108 margin. The new extension pushes the funding deadline for the agriculture bill to March 1, giving appropriators a month and a half to complete their work.

The move was met with outrage by many House Republicans, who were frustrated that Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) allowed the short-term funding bill without additional policy concessions. The final tally included 207 Democrats and 107 Republicans voting in favor of the bill, a result that right-wing members saw as a win for the left.

The new bill retains the previous “laddered” approach, with four appropriations bills expiring March 1 and the remaining eight running through March 8. USDA and FDA funding will be included in the first batch along with funding for veterans, military construction, transportation and housing.

Bill introduced to repeal estate tax

Republicans’ ongoing push to repeal the estate tax has a new champion in 2024. This week, Rep. Randy Feenstra (R-Iowa) introduced the “Death Tax Repeal Act,” which would permanently repeal the tax that draws the ire of many farmers and ranchers. A group of 162 other lawmakers joined Feenstra as original cosponsors.

“The death tax represents double taxation at its worst,” said Feenstra. “Iowa families grieving the loss of a loved one should not face an enormous tax bill from the federal government just to continue the family tradition of farming or keep their small business open and operational. … By fully eliminating the death tax, we can keep China away from our farmland, allow family farms and small businesses to succeed, and encourage the next generation of Iowa farmers and business owners to plant their roots in rural Iowa, support our main streets, and contribute to our economy.”

For several years, the effort to repeal the estate tax had been led by Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), who now serves as Chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. With his ascension to Chairman, Smith handed the legislation off to Feenstra.

Upon the bill’s introduction, Smith said, “Families who spend a generation building up a successful farm, ranch, or small business should be rewarded – not punished – by our tax code. Unfortunately, when a loved one passes away, many such families are forced to choose between attending to their grief or the threat of losing their business because of the excessive costs imposed by Washington’s misguided death tax. … I am proud to support this important piece of legislation introduced by my colleague, Rep. Feenstra, and look forward to continuing the fight on behalf of American family farmers, ranchers, and small businesses.”

About the Author(s)

Eric Bohl

Eric Bohl is an agricultural policy leader with extensive experience on Capitol Hill. He served six years as Chief of Staff to Congressman Jason Smith (R-MO) and Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler (R-MO), and previously served as Legislative Director to Rep. Hartzler. During that time, he led her work on the House Agriculture Committee and was influential in efforts to craft the 2014 Farm Bill, as well as handling environmental, energy, transportation and infrastructure, and agricultural trade issues.

Eric’s experience starts at the ground level. His family has deep roots in both animal and row-crop farming going back several generations. This understanding of the unique challenges real farmers face brings valuable perspective to help solve clients’ needs. His midwestern values also allow him to build meaningful relationships with people on both sides of the political aisle and find common-sense solutions that transcend partisan lines.

This approach has continued to be the cornerstone of Eric’s career in grassroots advocacy. He served more than five years as Director of Public Affairs and Advocacy for Missouri Farm Bureau. He was a senior member of the organization’s legislative team and led communications and coalition advocacy efforts, including on the 2018 Farm Bill. His writings on agriculture and rural policy have been published in newspapers across the nation. He serves as First Vice President of the St. Louis Agribusiness Club and is a board member of the Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City, two of the nation’s largest and strongest organizations supporting agribusinesses.

Before his career in public policy, Eric was a practicing attorney for nearly five years, focusing on real estate and agricultural law, commercial transactions, and commercial litigation. Eric earned undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Missouri, graduating from both programs with honors, and served as the Managing Editor of the Missouri Law Review.

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