WASHINGTON, May 25, 2016 - The fiscal 2017 appropriations process is fully underway after some early fits and starts. The Agriculture bills, which fund USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), are ready for possible floor action next month in both chambers.

The House is debating the Energy-Water appropriations bill this week, and it includes provisions to block implementation of the Obama administration’s “waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS) rule and to roll back endangered species regulations that have limited the flow of irrigation water into California’s Central Valley. The White House threatened to veto the bill, citing those and other provisions.

The Senate recently passed a version of the Energy-Water bill that lacks those controversial provisions.

An even more controversial bill is emerging from the House Appropriations Committee this week: The Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee is marking up a draft bill that would block both the WOTUS rule as well as the administration’s Clean Power Plan, which regulates carbon emissions from electric utilities.

The bill would increase funding for sage grouse conservation by $12 million. Funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is used to purchase private tracts, would be cut by $128 million to $322 million for 2017.

The bill funds the EPA, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. The Senate Appropriations Committee hasn’t released its version of the bill.

When it comes to agriculture, the Senate and House Appropriations committees have laid out differing priorities in their bills that will have to be negotiated later this year.

The Senate bill, approved by the full committee last week, puts more emphasis on agricultural research and is more generous toward conservation and international food aid than the House bill. The House version contains riders aiming to head off USDA rules on livestock marketing and convenience stores and also sodium reduction guidance being prepared by FDA.

Here is a look by subject at key provisions in both bills:

Agriculture Risk Coverage. The Senate bill would set up a pilot program to provide up to $5 million in supplemental ARC payments to producers who believe they were unfairly shortchanged by the program relative to farmers in neighboring counties.

Antibiotic resistance. Both bills would fund - for the first time - a plan by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to study antibiotic resistance on livestock and poultry operations. The monitoring program is a key part of the White House plan to protect the effectiveness of antibiotics in human medicine.

Biotechnology. The House includes $3 million earmarked for the FDA to promote consumer acceptance of genetically engineered foods. The Senate bill is silent on the issue, which was no surprise, since the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture subcommittee is Oregon’s Jeff Merkley, the leading proponent of mandatory GMO labeling. Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kan., told Agri-Pulse that the funding would be an issue for the House-Senate negotiations.

The Senate bill would instead mandate labeling of genetically engineered salmon, a top priority of a senior GOP appropriator, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Conservation.  The House bill would cut enrollment for the Conservation Stewardship Program from this year’s limit of 10 million acres to 8 million acres. The Senate bill would leave CSP alone. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program would get small increases under both bills, although the funding levels are still less than what the 2014 farm bill mandated. EQIP would get $1.35 billion under the House bill – up from this year’s $1.33 billion – and $1.47 billion under the Senate version.

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which enjoys broad popularity because of the way it leverages non-governmental funding to address problems ranging from water quality to climate change, would get large increases under both bills. The Senate bill would provide $285.5 million, up from $198.5 million for fiscal 2016, while the House bill earmarks $267 million for the RCPP.

Checkoff programs. The House committee’s report language urges USDA to exempt documents and communications involving checkoff programs from release under the Freedom of Information Act. USDA maintains that the documents aren’t exempt, and the Senate committee was silent on the issue.

Convenience stores. Both bills are sending a bipartisan message to USDA to step back from its proposed rule that would require convenience stores to offer more healthful foods if they want to continue accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. The Senate bill would force USDA to tighten the rule. The House bill would stop USDA from issuing it.

Cotton. The House committee’s report language urges USDA to consider making cottonseed eligible for the Price Loss Coverage and Agriculture Risk Coverage, but there’s no reason to believe Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is going to change his position that he doesn’t have legal authority to do so. The Senate committee expresses disappointment with Vilsack’s position.

The Senate’s report language raises concerns about the impact on cotton gins and farms of FDA’s new preventative controls for animal feed. Cottonseed is marketed for feed. FDA is directed to help cotton gins comply with the regulations. The Senate bill also would provide $1.5 million in research on cotton ginning.

Cuba. The Senate bill would fund a new Foreign Agricultural Service office in Cuba. The House bill is silent on the issue, reflecting the power of Cuban-American Republicans in the lower chamber.

Food aid. The Senate bill would increase funding for Food for Peace, the main international food assistance program, to $1.6 billion in 2017, up from $1.47 billion this year and the same amount in the House bill for 2017.

The Senate bill also would authorize $10 million in foreign food purchases, known as “local and regional procurement,” under the McGovern-Dole school feeding program.

Food safety. State agriculture departments and other agencies that will have to carry out the inspections and other requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act worry about whether the funding will be adequate. The Senate bill would boost FSMA funding by $40.2 million, the House by $33 million. Neither amount is enough, according to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, which estimates that states will need $100 million more per year.

GIPSA rule. The Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration is rushing to release new regulations on contract and marketing practices in the livestock and poultry industry. The House bill includes an amendment that would stop USDA in its tracks. There is nothing on the issue in the Senate version. USDA is expected to send the regulations any day now to the Office of Management and Budget for review.

Horse slaughter. Both bills would continue the current ban.

Organic eggs. Both bills urge USDA to consider the concerns of producers about a proposed rule setting new animal welfare standards for livestock and poultry operations. Egg producers, led by a Michigan farm with 2 million hens, argue that the requirements for outdoor access would be costly or impossible to implement. Sen. Moran said the report language is a placeholder, hinting that lawmakers could address the rule more directly later if the rule isn’t rewritten.

Research. Both bills would spend more on research, but the Senate version has larger increases both for USDA’s in-house research through the Agricultural Research Service, and through the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, which funds work at land grant universities and elsewhere. NIFA includes the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, a competitive grants program created by the 2008 farm bill.

The Senate bill would increase NIFA’s funding by $31 million to $851 million. The House bill has a $13 million increase. AFRI would be increased by $25 million under both bills to $375 million. The House committee specifically rejects President Obama’s proposal to devote part of any increase to the AFRI funding to bioenergy.

School nutrition. Schools could continue to get waivers from the whole grains requirement under the House bill, which also blocks a reduction in sodium standards. The House Appropriations Committee also is directing USDA’s Agricultural Research Service to provide a plan for studying the levels of sodium consumption in school-aged children.

Sodium. Under the House bill, FDA would be barred from issuing new guidance to food companies on reducing sodium levels until the Institute of Medicine completes a study of the issue. The Senate report encourages FDA to delay the guidance until the IOM and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issue new recommendations on sodium.

Wheat. Both bills would increase USDA research funding on fusarium head blight by $2 million, up from $6.7 million this year. The farm bill authorized $10 million a year.


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