Congressional leaders announced agreement on a $1.5 trillion, government-wide spending bill for fiscal 2022 that includes new funding for rural broadband expansion and authorization of a cattle contract library at USDA to address concerns about market power in the beef sector.
The legislation also would provide $834 million for increased purchasing of fruits and vegetables by participants in the Women, Infants and Children nutrition assistance program.
Left out of the 2,741-page omnibus bill, released early Wednesday, was an extension of school nutrition waivers issued at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that among other things allowed schools to offer free meals to all students, regardless of their families' ability to pay for them. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., resisted the extensions sought by school districts.
The agreement on the omnibus bill comes more than five months into FY22, which started Oct. 1.
The government has been funded at the FY21 levels since then by a series of continuing resolutions, the latest of which expires Friday. To give time for Congress to clear the omnibus, congressional leaders agreed to pass another CR that will keep the government funded through next Tuesday.
The massive omnibus bill ran into an immediate speed bump Wednesday when progressives were angered that a $15 billion package of COVID aid that was attached had been offset by rescinding some earlier spending. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed to pull the pandemic relief out of the legislation, blaming Republicans for insisting that the funding be offset by spending cuts. "It is heartbreaking to remove the COVID funding, and we must continue to fight for urgently needed COVID assistance, but unfortunately that will not be included in this bill," she said.
The House then passed the omnibus Wednesday night on a pair of votes, approving the non-defense portion 260-171 and the defense section 361-69.
The Agriculture portion of the bill that funds the Food and Drug Administration and Commodity Futures Trading Commission is funded at $25.1 billion, an increase of 6% above fiscal 2021.
The USDA portion includes $1 million for USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service to establish a cattle contract library as a pilot program. The House in December passed a bill authorizing such record keeping as part of an effort to give cattle producers more negotiating power with processors. The program is supposed to be similar to a swine contract library USDA currently maintains.
Meat processors are unhappy with a provision that requires USDA to establish the new contract storehouse "without regard to" the normal notice and comment requirements that often slow down the start of a new program.
Processors "will be legally obligated to report private business information to the government that will then be published, yet there will be no opportunity for those companies to provide valuable perspective on what information should be included or how it should be reported," said Sarah Little, a spokesperson for the North American Meat Institute.
"Congress and the administration say they value transparency in the beef and cattle market; they should value the same when they create another onerous USDA program with the sole purpose of collecting private business information and making it public."
The bill would provide $550 million in additional funding to USDA for rural broadband. Some $487 million would go to the department’s ReConnect grant and loan program. The FY22 funding is in addition to the $2 billion earmarked for ReConnect under the bipartisan infrastructure law enacted last fall.
The legislation contains $3.5 billion for agricultural research, a $217 million increase from FY21. That total includes roughly $1.6 billion each for the Agricultural Research Service, USDA’s in-house research arm, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which funds outside research through universities and other entities. Funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, which has underwritten work on cover crops and other practices, would be increased by $5 million to $45 million
The bill includes $78.3 million for various climate-related initiatives, a priority of the Biden administration.
USDA’s two major international food aid programs would get just under $2 billion. Food for Peace grants are funded at $1.74 billion, the same amount as in FY21. The McGovern-Dole school feeding program would get $237 million.
Report language that accompanies the omnibus bill attempts to address concerns about increased ownership of American cropland by foreign investors.
The report directs USDA to produce a report "regarding data on foreign-owned agricultural land trends including land owned, or partially owned, by the governments of China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea over the past decade and projections for the next decade based off of previous trends, and the potential impacts on the American agricultural sector, food security, and rural economies."
The provision says lawmakers recognize "the threats to food security and rural economies posed by higher rates of agricultural land purchased by non-farming entities, including private equity firms and foreign-owned corporations, due to an aging farmer population and decreasing number of individuals entering into farming and ranching." USDA would have 180 days to finish the study.
FDA's FY22 budget would include a $29.5 million increase for food safety activities.
The Environmental Protection Agency would be funded at $9.6 billion, $323 million above FY21. Some $539 million is earmarked for environmental compliance monitoring and enforcement, a $13 million increase above FY21.
The Interior Department would be funded at $14.1 billion, a $776 million increase from FY21. That total includes $1.4 billion for the Bureau of Land Management, an increase of $101 million. BLM’s allocation includes at least $78 million for sage-grouse conservation and $31 million for protection of threatened and endangered species.
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