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News / Northwest

Effort to ban foreign adversaries from buying U.S. farmland picks up steam in Congress

By Orion Donovan-Smith, The Spokesman-Review
Published: February 22, 2023, 7:55am

WASHINGTON — A Republican effort to ban the United States’ foreign adversaries from buying U.S. farmland has picked up steam and bipartisan backing in recent weeks amid growing concern over China’s influence.

Reps. Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane are among dozens of GOP lawmakers who have advocated legislation since 2022 that would bar individuals and businesses associated with the Chinese government or China’s ruling Communist Party from buying U.S. farmland. But until recently, those efforts haven’t had the Democratic support needed to become law.

At the end of January, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana became the first Senate Democrat to introduce a broader bill — along with Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota and seven other Republicans — that would effectively blacklist China, Russia, Iran and North Korea from buying farmland in the United States. In the House, Rep. Jim Costa of California joined dozens of Republicans to introduce the same legislation.

“As a third-generation Montana farmer, I’m not going to sit back and let our foreign adversaries weaken our national security by buying up American farmland,” Tester said in a statement. “That’s why I’m proud to be joining my friend Senator Rounds on our bipartisan effort to prevent foreign countries like China from acquiring U.S. farmland and ensure our farmers have a seat at the table when the government makes decisions impacting our national security.”

Last December, a federal committee tasked with reviewing business transactions by foreign companies in the United States ruled that it didn’t have the authority to block a Chinese company’s plan to build a corn mill near an Air Force base in North Dakota. That body, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, is chaired by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and includes representatives from other cabinet agencies.

In a letter to North Dakota’s senators on Jan. 27, a top Air Force official signaled an endorsement for expanding the jurisdiction of the committee, known by its initials, CFIUS.

“While CFIUS concluded that it did not have jurisdiction,” Assistant Secretary Andrew Hunter wrote, “the Department’s view is unambiguous: the proposed project presents a significant threat to national security with both near- and long-term risks of significant impacts to our operations in the area.”

In September, President Joe Biden issued an executive order that directed the committee to consider several new factors when it reviews purchases, noting that “certain investments in the United States from foreign persons, particularly those from competitor or adversarial nations, can present risks to U.S. national security.”

But the executive order didn’t expand the committee’s jurisdiction, as the legislation aims to do.

Newhouse, who has led similar legislation that has no Democratic backing, announced his support for the bipartisan bill in a Feb. 3 post on Twitter.

“Protecting American farmland is a national security priority,” he wrote. “I hear from many farmers in Central WA who are concerned about our nation’s adversaries buying up our farmland.”

A spokesman for McMorris Rodgers, who cosponsored Newhouse’s bill, said the Spokane Republican is open to backing the bipartisan bill.

“The congresswoman certainly supports efforts to make it more difficult for foreign adversaries to purchase land in the United States, especially when it poses a risk to our national security,” McMorris Rodgers spokesman Kyle VonEnde said in an email. “She is reviewing this legislation and will track it closely as it moves through Congress.”

It is unclear whether Democratic leaders in the Senate would allow the bill to come to the floor for a vote. If the legislation doesn’t gain wider support among Democrats, it could be included in the sweeping package of agricultural and food assistance measures known as the Farm Bill, which needs to be reauthorized this year.