WASHINGTON, April 30, 2017 – Congress is set to approve a fiscal 2017 budget agreement this week, while the Trump administration is moving to soften key school nutrition standards.
The text of the spending agreement released early Monday omitted new farm bill funding for which dairy and cotton provisions had been lobbying. Instead, the explanatory statements accompanying the legislation direct the Agriculture Department to report to Congress on the needs of cotton producers and to provide immediate assistance to dairy farms, using USDA's existing authority.
The budget deal rejects spending cuts proposed by President Trump in March and instead would provide an overall increase in spending for discretionary spending programs at USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, programs for which the levels are not set by the farm bill and other laws.
Congress on Friday approved a one-week extension for government funding to allow time for negotiators to finalize details of a bill that would fund departments and agencies through Sept. 30, the end of fiscal 2017.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the agreement "takes the threat of a government shutdown off the table." He said the deal excluded what Democrats considered poison pill riders, "and increases investments in programs that the middle class relies on, like medical research, education and infrastructure."
The cotton and dairy issues had implications beyond those two sectors because the provisions would create new funding streams, or baseline, for the two commodities going into the next farm bill. Otherwise, lawmakers may consider trimming other programs to address complaints by cotton and dairy products that the current farm bill has been inadequate.
“I’ve got to get them fixed,” House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said of the cotton and dairy issues. “I really want them done now, not just for me but for the industry itself. Dairy’s got problems and cotton has problems. if we can get those solved now, that would receive a lot of stress in the production agriculture world.”
But the negotiations over the cotton and dairy provisions apparently foundered in the final days of the talks. The ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, balked at the level of spending that dairy producers are seeking to get included – about half of the $4.5 billion over 10 years that that would be provided for cotton, he told Brownfield Ag News. Peterson said excessive payments for dairy producers could encourage overproduction and would mostly benefit large producers. Peterson wants to rework the Margin Protection Program to target higher levels of assistance to small-scale operations.
The cotton payments were supposed to be largely offset by eliminating generic base acreage, formerly cotton acreage prior to the 2014 farm bill, and ending the Stacked Income Protection (STAX) revenue insurance program for cotton.
A source familiar with the negotiations told Agri-Pulse there was an effort to fund the dairy assistance from the cotton funding. There also has been disagreement on how MPP should be changed.
The cotton provision was supposed to make cottonseed eligible for the Price Loss Coverage program. The dairy provision, which was still being debated heading into this weekend, would involve changes to provide additional payments through the MPP.
Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, said the dairy asssitance was critically important. Both MPP "and the cotton program are clearly in need of repair and each should be addressed independently in this funding bill. We are strongly supportive of the proposed improvements to MPP in the Senate effort," Mulhern said.
On Monday, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue will announce an interim final rule that will provide “flexibility” in the nutrition standards that the Obama administration implemented under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., will join Perdue for the announcement at a school in Leesburg, Va.
A spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association declined to comment on the details of the interim rule but made note of the organization’s policy on sodium and whole grains. SNA has proposed to eliminate planned reductions in sodium limits and to roll back a mandate that all grains offered in schools be whole-grain rich. SNA wants to restore the initial requirement that at least half of grains be whole grain rich.
A bipartisan reauthorization bill that Roberts moved out of his committee in January 2016 would have lowered the whole grain requirement in school meals to 80 percent and delayed for two years additional reductions in sodium limits. The bill never received a vote on the Senate floor in part because of opposition from Democrats.
Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, expressed concern about the rule Perdue is releasing. “Rather than altering the current path forward, we hope the agency focuses more on providing technical assistance that can help schools get across the finish line, if they haven’t done so already,” she said.
Other agencies also are moving to rework Obama administration regulations. The Food and Drug Administration last week sent a rule to the White House to delay this Friday’s deadline for restaurants, supermarket delis and convenience stores to post nutrition information for customers.
The National Grocers Association and the National Association of Convenience Stores had earlier submitted a petition to the FDA seeking the delay. The organizations say FDA staff still can’t answer important questions about how businesses can comply with the labeling regulation.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water will hold a public listening session on Tuesday to gather input on regulations that should be changed. The three-hour event will be conducted via telephone conference call and the web. The agency expected to hear from about 70 to 80 people.
Here’s a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:
Monday, May 1
National Association of Farm Broadcasting annual Washington Watch conference, through Wednesday.
12:30 p.m. - Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., announce interim final rule on school nutrition standards, Leesburg, Va.
2 p.m. - Perdue speaks with six national FFA Organization chapters from around the country via YouTube Live, Leesburg, Va.
Tuesday, May 2
10 a.m. - House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing on the Antiquities Act, 1324 Longworth.
10 a.m. - Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on payments through the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act and the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, 366 Dirksen.
10 a.m. - Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the nomination of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad to be ambassador to China, 419 Dirksen.
11 a.m. - EPA’s Office of Water holds public listening session on reducing the agency’s regulatory burden, by telephone and web conference.
11 a.m. - Perdue speaks to NAFB.
Wednesday, May 3
Presidential Advisory Council on Combatting Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria public meeting, through Thursday, 200 Independence Ave, SW
EPA Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee meeting, through Thursday, Arlington, Va.
10 a.m. - Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on barriers to broadband deployment, 253 Russell.
10 a.m. - Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, “Infrastructure Project Streamlining and Efficiency: Achieving Faster, Better, and Cheaper Results,” 406 Dirksen.
10:30 a.m. - House Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee hearing for public witnesses, 2362-B Rayburn.
Thursday, May 4
Food and Drug Law Institute annual conference, through Friday, Ronald Reagan Building.
Friday, May 5
FDLI annual conference.
9:30 a.m. - U.S. Chamber of Commerce forum, “Farm to Table: A Tech Story,” on technology in food production, 1615 H Street NW.
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