Sen. Mike Johanns (R-NE) told cattlemen attending this week's Range Beef Cow Symposium in Mitchell, NE, that regulatory overreach and out-of-control government spending are the greatest challenges facing government today. In fact, the former USDA Secretary under President George W. Bush says he can't have a conversation with a farmer or rancher without having EPA regulations come up.

On the legislative front, Johanns says he's disappointed that the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction wasn't able to reach any agreement on federal spending cuts. But, in the case of the farm bill, that may not be all bad.

The farm bill proposal that was submitted to the joint committee was developed behind closed doors. "I have to tell you, I fundamentally believe government works best when there's lots of sunshine. I've always been a fan of transparency and public discussion. The idea of developing a five-year farm policy plan without an open process concerned me a great deal."

Now, with the collapse of the joint committee, the Senate and House ag committees will have to go back to work and develop a proposal next year. "I encourage you to stay engaged," Johanns says. "If you're near a meeting on farm policy in the next year, please try to attend and offer your thoughts."

Johanns gave several examples of how regulatory overreach creeps out of Washington and can affect ag producers, citing the GIPSA rule, the proposed 1099 reporting requirements in President Obama's healthcare plan and EPA's farm dust proposal as examples (1099 would have required businesses to fill out 1099 forms with the IRS for certain transactions of $600 or more).

In those cases, Johanns says bipartisan support helped head off a situation potentially disastrous for farmers and ranchers.

But he says EPA is very proactive and its regulatory lens is also focused on water quality and agriculture runoff. "To make matters worse, they're not doing this through the full rulemaking process that would require public comment," Johanns says.

"Instead, they're going in a different direction. EPA, along with the Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Interior and USDA, have issued a guidance document." Johanns explains that while EPA says the guidance document includes exemptions for agriculture, he's convinced that may not necessarily be the case.

"The document notes that irrigated areas, stock tanks and low-lying areas are 'generally not waters of the U.S.' Some smart person is going to have to interpret for me what 'generally not waters of the U.S.' means," Johanns says. "It's not very definitive and allows for a whole bunch of mischief. That word 'generally' produces a lot of uncertainty; it creates confusion and it doesn't give me any peace of mind. And I can guarantee it's not giving producers peace of mind."

One major problem Johanns has with using guidance documents to circumvent the normal legislative and rulemaking process is that it shifts the burden of proving an exemption from the regulator to the producer. "EPA should be forced to explain why on earth agriculture producers should be subject to these regulations. Instead, you, your friends and your neighbors will have to explain why it's ridiculous to regulate stock tanks and irrigated areas. This will result in costs, paperwork and red tape. You don't need any more of that."

The regulatory overreach that ag producers are seeing in USDA and EPA extends even further, he says, citing the Department of Labor's child labor proposals as an example.

"My concern is this will restrict young people from assisting neighbors or extended family when they need help working cattle, and prohibit them from participating in activities like 4-H and FFA," he says. "I was raised on a dairy farm. Safety was always paramount. We talked about safety, not doing stupid things when you're out there working around animals and machinery."

Sharing in the work and caring for animals were part of the values he was taught as a child, he adds. "It was part of the values I learned from our neighbors. This just doesn't make any sense. Some of the ideas proposed by this labor law would limit rural youth from learning those same important lessons," he says.