Sens. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) are leading a bipartisan group of senators in introducing legislation to address transparency and coordination flaws in the Agriculture Department’s ability to track foreign investment in U.S. farmland.
The bill, called the AFIDA Improvements Act of 2024 is being introduced Thursday, and would implement several changes to the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act based on recommendations from a recent Government Accountability Office report. The GAO report was released Jan. 18 and was requested amid growing concerns over the national security, trade and food security impact of foreign ownership of U.S. agricultural land.
“Since the enactment of the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act (AFIDA) in 1978, foreign persons who acquire, dispose of, or hold an interest in U.S. agricultural land are required to disclose such transactions to USDA,” Braun’s office told POLITICO ahead of the legislation’s public release.
“However, since enactment, the AFIDA process has suffered from a lack of transparency, accountability, and enforcement,” his office added.
The legislation is co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Joni Ernst (Iowa), Bill Hagerty (Tenn.), Roger Marshall (Kan.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Eric Schmitt (Mo.), as well as Democrats Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Tammy Baldwin (Wisc.) and John Fetterman (Pa.).
On communication: The new legislation would compel USDA to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to streamline data sharing between USDA and CFIUS member agencies such as the Treasury and Defense departments.
The senators say the provision aligns with a recommendation from GAO to establish a system to provide more relevant information to CFIUS member agencies.
The bill would also direct USDA to update its handbook, which employees use for guidance on how state and county offices should collect reliable foreign investment data, which also lacks guidance on how to verify information on AFIDA forms, the GAO report said.
On implementation: The bill would require USDA to report to Congress a timeline of specific implementation benchmarks for its online submission system and public database of foreign land ownership information.
Braun’s office notes that while under the current law, Congress compels USDA to implement an online submission process and public database for AFIDA data by 2025, the GAO said the department “has not developed timelines for creating an online submission process [or] a public database.”
On inspection: The legislation would also enable USDA to “take any such actions as are necessary” to validate foreign ownership data collected under the 1970s-era measure, leverage Farm Service Agency data to identify those who have not filed transactions and require reporting from foreign persons who have a minority stake in agricultural land.
What’s next: Senate and House Agriculture Committee leadership teams are still trying to determine whether they will handle foreign ownership as a standalone issue or as part of the next farm bill. In the meantime, the agriculture committees have said that they are hoping to see interested members coalesce around a shared set of ideas, according to a Senate staffer.
Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) is planning on introducing a companion bill in the House alongside Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa) and Democratic lawmakers, the staffer said.
Context: Foreign investment in U.S. agricultural land grew to about 40 million acres in 2021, according to USDA estimates, and the issue has been raised repeatedly in Congress though lawmakers have yet to take action on any of the legislative proposals.
Various state governments, such as Arkansas and Texas, have passed or considered legislation to restrict foreign land ownership or are weighing legislation to that effect. House Republicans had hoped the GAO report would have come last summer to be able to hold a hearing on the matter alongside other committee meetings on China and intelligence matters.
The GAO’s recommendations would require more funding and a major overhaul of local data collection practices, a USDA spokesperson told POLITICO.