Senate, House ag spending bills similar, but with serious differences

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 11, 2014 - For all our lawmakers' so-called partisan bickering, the Democrat-crafted and committee-approved Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill and the GOP-written House legislation have very similar funding levels. But despite some of the bills' similarities, appropriators, staffers and lobbyists are headed to the battlements to defend their niche issues - many insisting that their issues aren't so niche at all.

Adding to the debate: The House bill drew a strongly-worded veto threat from the White House on Tuesday, which cited concerns over school nutrition, potatoes in the program that helps women and infant children with healthy food purchases, and a number of other elements. For the full statement of administration policy, click here.

The House is scheduled to consider its ag spending bill today, while the Senate is expected to wait until next week and bundle its legislation with other appropriations bills. While the school-nutrition debate is generating most of the headlines, a closer look at the spending packages reveals some other similarities and differences between the bills - differences that may eventually have to be hashed out in conference.

According to an Agri-Pulse analysis, the bills as passed by both chambers' Appropriations Committees call for a total of about $142 billion in spending, including mandatory and discretionary funds - $142.86 billion for the House legislation, $142.65 billion for the Senate. Both hover near the $145.44 billion enacted budget for fiscal year 2014, and come in a bit lower than the $145.2 billion budget requested by the White House for fiscal year 2015, which starts Oct. 1.

That relatively small difference makes sense. In December, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., hammered out a budget deal setting the top-line budget for 2015 at $1.012 trillion. That deal ensured that both House and Senate Appropriations Committees operated off of very similar budget levels when crafting their legislation.

Lets Talk Food

The bills and the lawmakers who wrote them have caught the attention of many far outside the agriculture world. Last month, First lady Michelle Obama made an unprecedented foray into the sometimes-snoozy congressional appropriations debate by coming out strongly against a House Republican proposal to allow schools to delay new school nutrition guidelines by one year. Since that time, there's been a steady drumbeat of critics sharing her concerns.

“It's 90 percent a great bill, but 10 percent is bad - really bad,” said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., the ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, during a markup session last month.

Here's an overview of the House and Senate bills.

Title I - Agricultural Programs

House $25.57 billion, Senate $25.63 billion

The Senate bill asks USDA to create an Under Secretary of Agriculture for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs by August 2015. Though this move is already mandated by the 2014 Farm Bill, the National Council of Farmer Cooperative's Chuck Conner says it's a top priority for his group: “We would want to see that sooner rather than later,” he said. The plan will require USDA to eliminate another under secretary position, a move Conner says will be “controversial - but trade is so important to us right now.”

Conner's group was also part of a larger agriculture coalition - including the American Soybean Association, US Rice Producers, National Corn Growers Association, and many others - that sent a letter Monday to House members asking them to resist making any changes to the Farm Bill in the appropriations legislation. “The Farm Bill was enacted into law only four months ago and most of its provisions have yet to be implemented,” the groups said in the letter. “Congress must respect the importance of these decisions and allow the reforms included in the 2014 Farm Bill to achieve their full effect.”

In an interview, Conner said the letter was a reaction to House committee attempts to change the sugar and crop insurance programs in the farm bill to meet its budget mark. Connor said he has seen nothing from the Senate Appropriations mark that would change existing Farm Bill provisions.  

Research

Research priorities for the Senate include the commercialization of biomass to fish and animal feed, improving poultry and food animal feed, the collection of organic use and market data, and nanotechnology in plants for drought resistance. The House, on the other hand, pushes for deeper looks into citrus greening disease, wild rice, industrial hemp and the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv).

Both bills, however, ask USDA to investigate herbicide resistance, a Pulse Health Initiative that could provide solutions to “critical health issues including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer,” and pollinators and the causes of colony collapse disorder.

Randy Russell, of the eponymous Russell Group, says his lobbying firm has been focusing on another Senate provision that would restrict the matching grants program of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AGRI) to land-grant universities. The program, established by the Farm Bill, was “set up to be a competitive program and was never targeted for land-grants,” he said. The grants are meant to support “high priority, basic research based on those that are most knowledgeable in the field.” Russell says.

Overall, AFRI received benefited from both the House and Senate markups, with funding going from $316 million to $325 million.

Meat, poultry and inspection

The House bill goes after country of origin labeling (COOL), directing USDA not to implement or enforce a final COOL rule should the WTO rule against the U.S. This is a coup for groups like the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which has opposed COOL despite the policy's continuation under the 2014 Farm Bill.

The House bill also includes provisions retracting 2008 Farm Bill rules governed by the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA). The retractions would do away with eight sections of the GIPSA rule that is currently being finalized, and would block enforcement on three sections that have already been made final. Of particular interest to a number of agriculture groups is the retraction of a rule that would require poultry growers to be given 90 days' notice by a poultry company if the company intends to suspend delivery of birds. No similar provision exists in the Senate bill.

A House amendment that would have retracted that provision - Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) called it “symbolic” - was offered by Rep. Marci Kaptur, D-Ohio, but rejected by the Appropriations Committee. But the rider is sure to get some action on the House floor. “These are such basic, basic protections,” Hoefner said. “We'll be prepared to fight this fight for years to come.”

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, also offered sharp criticism of the change during his weekly call with reporters, suggesting that - with so much investment in buildings, poultry growers could easily be put out of business without any advance notice. “We have got to make sure these people aren't slaves to a highly-concentrated industry,” Grassley emphasized.

The Senate bill demands a final catfish inspection rule no later than early 2015, one year after the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill.

Farm Service Agency

Both bills slam MIDAS, the Farm Service Agency's (FSA) initiative to “Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems.” The effort, launched in 2004, lags behind its originally proposed timeline, both congressional bills say. “Congress has appropriated nearly $400 million to support the modernization of a farm program delivery system,” the House bill reads. “The total lifecycle costs of this program…will continue to grow if the department fails to manage this project in a far more efficient manner.”

The House committee directs USDA to provide quarterly briefings on MIDAS to Congress beginning in FY 2015; the Senate committee says it won't fund the FSA program unless the Agriculture Secretary provides a schedule for full implementation by June 20.

Both bills criticize the administration's proposal to close 250 FSA offices. The Senate bill directs USDA to conduct a “thorough workload analysis” to determine how the proposal would impact farmers. The House bill also calls for workload assessments prior to closure.

Title II - Conservation Programs

House $868 million; Senate $850 million

The House bill endorses sage grouse conservation efforts; the Senate legislation never explicitly does.

The Senate bill encourages the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service to “maximize the staff available” to help farmers promote soil health through cover crops.

The House bill chips away at conservation funding through so-called appropriations ChIMPs - changes in mandatory programs. The Appropriations committee cut Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) funding by $109 million, while the Senate committee left Farm Bill funding intact. “CSP already took a major cut in the Farm Bill,” NSAC's Hoefner said of the cut. “It's already taken its fair share in the world of conservation. It's totally off-the-charts unfair.”

The House mark also cut $209 million from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) - though that's less than the Senate's $250 million cut.

 

Title III - Rural Development Programs

House $2.58 billion; Senate $2.45 billion

Joe Belden, deputy executive director of the Housing Assistance Council, draws attention to USDA's Rural Development direct loan program. While the White House's budget funded the program at only $360 million, the Senate mark funds it at $900 million, and the House bill at over $1 billion.

Title IV - Domestic Food Programs

House $109.83 billion; Senate $109.80 billion

The Senate bill directs USDA to work with individual school districts that are having difficulty complying with the 100 percent whole-grain requirement set forward by the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act.

The House bill would grant one-year waivers to school nutrition programs operating at a financial loss for at least six months after the implementation of new school lunch guidelines.

The House bill reinforces Farm Bill language that prohibits USDA from conducting recruitment activities for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which used to be called Food Stamps.

The House legislation expresses concern that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans committee will base its final recommendations on issues like sustainability, climate change, environmental factors and production practices. The committee directs the Agriculture Secretary to ensure that the guidelines are only based on “sound nutrition science” and do not pursue an “environmental agenda.”

Both bills include language that would allow participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to purchase white potatoes with their benefits. Participants had previously been prohibited from purchasing the produce, as lawmakers believed other vegetables were healthier.

The House bill, however, emphasizes: “[V]egetables with added sugars, fats or oils are (not) eligible for purchase through the WIC program.”

Title V - Foreign Assistance and Related Programs

House $1.84 billion; Senate $1.83 billion

The House bill rejects the Obama administration's request for increased flexibility within the Food for Peace Act. “[T]he recently passed 2014 Farm Bill reformed the program and effectively removed the practice of monetization,” lawmakers write. “Transforming [it] into a cash program would be duplicative of other programs and counter to the reforms Congress recently enacted.”

Title VI - Related Agencies and the Food and Drug Administration

House $2.80 billion; Senate $2.60 billion

The House bill resists menu labeling at chain restaurants, requesting a cost-benefit analysis of the strategy, which is mandated by the 2010 Affordable Care Act. FDA “should take into account the increased costs and logical challenges chain restaurants will face in meeting the requirements of the proposed rule,” House lawmakers write.

Both committees warn FDA off over-stringent Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rules, which are currently being proposed (and in some cases, re-proposed) by the agency. The Senate asks that stakeholders be allowed to re-comment on proposed rules dealing with human and animal food, and that FDA conduct more economic analysis before issuing final guidelines. The House stresses that FDA “ensure all FSMA regulations are risk-based, flexible, and science-based, and embrace the well-established and recognized standards already employed through much of the industry.”

Title VII - General provisions

House -$624 million; Senate -$503 million

Both bills include a number of recissions, including salary limits on certain programs.

#30

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