Spending bill sets stage for battles over WOTUS, school nutrition

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, Dec 9, 2014 -- The massive $1 trillion fiscal 2015 spending bill that congressional leaders have agreed on sets the stage for fights next year over the Clean Water Act, school nutrition, the beef checkoff and country-of-origin labeling.

The bill, dubbed a “cromnibus,” because it would provide only a temporary continuing resolution to fund the Department of Homeland Security, would kill an interpretive rule that lays out agricultural exemptions to Section 404 permitting requirements under the Clean Water Act.

Farm groups say the rule would essentially require farmers to begin meeting USDA standards for a range of conservation measures, including grass waterways and forage management. But forcing the administration to withdraw the measure shouldn't be that controversial, given that environmentalists don't like the interpretive rule either. They say the agricultural exemptions would go too far.

Together we can feed the Bees"

The interpretive rule was issued in conjunction with a proposed rule defining what areas are regulated as “waters of the United States,” or WOTUS. The two measures set off a firestorm among farm groups alarmed at the impact they would have on land use. Killing the interpretive rule is the “first step in killing the massive regulatory overreach” of the WOTUS rule, said Don Parrish of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

The bill also includes language that would allow schools to get around a whole-grains requirement in school meals if it's too expensive or schools are having trouble finding alternatives.  The provision stops short of the broad waiver from nutrition standards that was included in the House Appropriations Committee's fiscal 2015 legislation. Republicans will try to weaken the rules further next year when they control the Senate.

The bill sets the table for a debate in 2015 over country-of-origin labeling for meat. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack would be directed to propose changes to the law. He must produce the proposals by May 1 or within 15 days of when the World Trade Organization's final determination of a challenge to the law by Canada or Mexico, whichever is earlier.

The legislation also orders Vilsack not to implement a new beef checkoff program, a move the secretary has been considering because of an industry impasse over making changes to the existing program. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association applauded the move. “We appreciate Congress' support of the beef checkoff program in siding with America's cattlemen and women, against the Administration's duplicate checkoff,” said NCBA spokesman Chase Adams.

In addition, the spending agreement seeks to ensure that the revised federal dietary guidelines due out next year don't incorporate environmental factors into the recommendations, a move that could discourage meat and dairy consumption. "The agreement expects the Secretary to ensure that the advisory committee focuses on nutrient and dietary recommendations based upon sound nutrition science,” according to the bill's explanatory statement. “The agreement directs the Secretary to only include nutrition and dietary information, not extraneous factors,” in the final guidelines.

Robert Aderholt, the Alabama Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee, said the whole-grains waiver was the most that Republicans could do for now to give relief to schools from USDA's new nutrition standards. Next year, when the GOP controls the Senate, they could expand the waiver for fiscal 2016 and possibly roll back the standards through reauthorization of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. “Come Jan. 6 when the new Senate gets sworn in then it is a new day,” Aderholt said.

The administration, led by first lady Michelle Obama, is certain to push back. More than 90 percent of schools are meeting the new requirements, said Kevin Concannon, USDA's undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. He visited a low-income middle school in Fresno, California, on Tuesday and told reporters afterward that students liked the more healthful foods they were being served. The students “were very positive about the meal experience,” he said.

Lawmakers will likely have to pass a new continuing resolution to keep the government in operation while the spending agreement moves through the House and Senate this week. The continuing resolution that's now funding the government expires Thursday.

Under other provisions in the spending bill:

--The Department of Agriculture's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration would be forced to repeal some regulations affecting the livestock and poultry industry.

--Recipients of benefits under the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program would be allowed to use their benefits to buy white potatoes.

--The ban on the slaughter of horses would continue in effect because of a prohibition, included in the bill, on USDA inspection of horse processing.

--The Department of Interior would be barred from listing the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

 
(This story was updated at 1:40 p.m. Eastern time.)

 

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