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A Bipartisan Push on China Is at Risk of Falling Apart Alongside the Farm Bill

A proposal to increase transparency on foreign ownership of U.S. land has support across Congress, but has a cloudy path toward becoming law this year.

Members of Congress from both parties are watching their priorities on China slip away as part of a faltering Farm Bill renewal. And there’s not much they can do about it besides wait for next year.

“It doesn’t look like we’re gonna get a Farm Bill,” Sen. Chuck Grassley said Wednesday. “All these add-ons we have … [that] I want to vote on, we won’t have a chance this year.”

One of those provisions would increase transparency on foreign ownership of U.S. land.

Politician after politician after politician has raised concerns over the past two years about Chinese investors buying up American farmland, especially near military bases. The recent attention brought up older incidents: a series of such purchases in Texas starting in 2016, and a Chinese company purchasing global pork powerhouse Smithfield Foods a decade ago rounded out fears of Chinese intelligence gathering and foreign involvement in the U.S. food supply.

States took action: In 2023, a dozen enacted or amended laws restricting foreign ownership of land, per the National Agricultural Law Center. Overall, 24 states have laws on the books restricting foreign ownership.

“Don’t forget food security is national security. That’s why we promote these things,” Grassley said.

In Congress, though, recent efforts haven’t managed to go the distance. Cramming them into the Farm Bill is seemingly the last attempt members can make to see them become law this session.

After getting a Farmland Securities Act passed in 2022 as part of the funding omnibus, Grassley and Sen. Tammy Baldwin are looking to get their 2023 version in as part of the Farm Bill. The 2022 provision required the Department of Agriculture secretary to publish all prior year disclosures of foreign investments in American agricultural land on a real-time public database and report on the issue to Congress, including the impact on family farms and the domestic food supply.

“The USDA is charged with comprehensively tracking the ownership of agricultural land. Right now, they’re not really doing the job comprehensively and we need to empower them to do that,” Baldwin said.

The 2023 re-up, the goals of which made it into the Senate Farm Bill framework and are covered in the House’s proposal, includes requiring the USDA to increase filing requirements for foreign investors who enter into leasing agreements or hold 1% in land, to establish penalties for those failing to comply with reporting requirements and makes permanent the stipulation for an online database.

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Some senators are particularly frustrated about the lack of movement on the proposal, especially considering it’s one of the few with some bipartisan agreement.

“I think we all recognize that land ownership is very important — making sure that we have Americans that are farming that land, working that land,” Sen. Joni Ernst said. “We’ve got legs on all this and good bipartisan support.”

The House version was introduced by a Washington Democrat and has six Republican co-sponsors.

Another effort on foreign land ownership, introduced by Republican Sen. Mike Braun in January, has 10 Democratic co-sponsors and 15 Republican ones. The House version, from Republican Rep. Don Bacon, has five Democratic and 16 Republican co-sponsors.

Last July, the Senate passed the Promoting Agriculture Safeguards and Security Act, an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act from Republican Sen. Mike Rounds and Democrat Sen. Jon Tester. The amendment sought to limit investments in American agriculture from China, North Korea, Russia and Iran. It also added agriculture as an industry the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States would have to consider when deciding whether a transaction presents a threat to U.S. national security.

Those proposals didn’t make it into the passed NDAA, despite making it through the Senate 91-7.

There are only so many other options for getting the work done this year. Baldwin is focusing on this one, saying she “was going to be a strong advocate for many of the bills I’ve introduced separately to be included in the Farm Bill.”

Is there, realistically, another way to get this through? “No, it’s most important to get the Farm Bill done as a vehicle,” said Rep. GT Thompson, chair of the House Committee on Agriculture.

Rep. Derrick Van Orden, a co-sponsor of Bacon’s legislation and a supporter of limiting Chinese ownership of American land, said Congress could “add [it] as an amendment to something else. You can put it on as a policy rider or a stand-alone piece of legislation.”

But the House hasn’t had the best track record of passing much of anything, and it’s unclear what other upcoming must-pass legislation this could be added to.

Foreign land use holds special importance to people like Baldwin and Tester, who are up for reelection in tough states and who’ve authored or co-sponsored multiple bills on the subject. They both have more support from rural voters than most Democrats, often including agricultural voters who may split their vote between two parties, and who are very concerned about China.

A Tester ad last year highlighted his work on foreign land purchasing. Tim Sheehy, Tester’s opponent in Montana, has run ads focusing on China and mentioned Chinese land purchases in a December 2023 “Fox and Friends” appearance.

A Democratic operative in Montana said Tester, a farmer himself, has heard repeated concerns about the issue while attending listening sessions with farmers across the state.

“A lot of this spearheading of the [NDAA amendment] legislation was in direct response to feedback from Montana farmers very worried about this happening in Montana,” they said.

Baldwin’s first ad focused on China “[stealing] Wisconsin jobs” primarily in manufacturing — but her campaign knows that fear isn’t limited.

“Our farmers know that they can count on Tammy to stand up against China trying to buy up Wisconsin farmland,” said Baldwin campaign spokesperson Andrew Mamo. “Voters across Wisconsin’s dairyland support Tammy Baldwin because time and again they have seen her taking on the biggest fights for them and their communities.”

Nuha Dolby is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.