Ag spending bill advances
The Senate Agriculture appropriations bill’s $19.78 billion in total spending compares with $19.92 billion in fiscal year 2011 discretionary spending and a House-passed fiscal year 2012 bill that would spend only $17.08 billion.
Lobbyists had expected the committee to take up amendments on genetically modified salmon, the school lunch rule, horse slaughter, the Packers and Stockyards rule and conservation, and there were discussions of all except horse slaughter and Packers and Stockyards.
The bill was passed on a voice vote. The Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee did not meet in an open session, but subcommittee members were polled before the full committee markup to approve the bill.
Amendments to keep the Food and Drug Administration from approving genetically modified salmon and to stop USDA from cutting back on the use of potatoes and other starchy vegetables in the school lunch program are among those that might be offered on the Senate floor if the bill comes up there as an independent piece of legislation.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-HI, noted that the Agriculture bill and those for energy and water and homeland security, which also were passed Wednesday, all had to endure cuts. But Inouye also noted that the three bills together would contain $5.5 billion in disaster relief, using authority under the debt ceiling bill that allows appropriators to include $11.3 billion in disaster relief without an offset in other spending. He added that additional funding may be required to cover damages from the flooding in the Midwest, Northeast and South once those cost estimates are confirmed.
The appropriations bill does not cover Agriculture Department-managed mandatory entitlement programs such as farm subsidies and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Herb Kohl, D- WI., said that his priorities, along with subcommittee ranking member Roy Blunt, R-MO., had been to protect food safety, the special nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC, agricultural research and rural development.
Kohl noted that he had been able to include an increase in the P.S. 480 Title II program emergency food assistance in light of the famine in the Horn of Africa, where food aid “is all that stands between life and death.” Funding for the McGovern-Dole international school meals program got $188 million compared with $199 million in fiscal year 2012.
The committee managed to maintain the budgets for these programs by cutting conservation programs. The bill provides $828 million for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service compared to $871 million in fiscal year 2011, but Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition noted that the bill also cut mandatory conservation programs.
“The best that can be said about the Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill’s treatment of the 2008 farm bill is that it is a good deal better than the House bill,” Hoefner said in an email.
“However, a $726 million or 12 percent cut to farm bill mandatory conservation programs, on top of a halfbillion-dollar cut in the FY 11 bill, is a testament to how broken Washington is when it comes to budgetary matters,” Hoefner said.
“Shortchanging the Agriculture appropriations allocation such that the funding of important items like feeding programs and food safety requires raiding farm bill direct spending to make up for shortfalls is the type of gaming and double dealing that gives Congress a bad name,” Hoefner said. “Given the Senate Appropriations Committee action today, we hope the new budget super committee is paying attention: Conservation programs have already been forced to scale back, so any further farm bill mandatory spending cuts should come from other titles.”
Several senators offered amendments, but ultimately deferred to Kohl, who asked them to wait to bring those bills up on the floor. The senators, however, expressed concerns that due to the shortness of the congressional schedule, the Agriculture bill might be merged with others.
“I am a little concerned that each individual bill will not be moved on the floor,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-AK, author of the salmon bill.
Murkowski wants to prohibit funding for the FDA to consider approving genetically modified salmon as food. The salmon under consideration would take genes from several types of salmon and create a salmon that would be the size of an Alaskan king salmon, but grown “in a remarkably reduced time,” she said. Many people in Alaska have raised concerns that the salmon could escape from fish farms and pose a risk to the wild salmon population, she said, noting that Alaska fishermen are “very fearful” that the genetically modified salmon could affect prices and demand.
Kohl told Murkowski that if she insisted on bringing up her amendment, he would oppose it. “The Senate should not try to overrule scientists,” Kohl said. Such Senate action, he added, could “dissuade investment in other biotech products.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-ME, said she had decided not to offer an amendment to stop the Agriculture Department’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services division from proceeding with a school lunch rule that would limit the servings of white potatoes in the school lunch program, but that she still has “grave concerns” regarding the rule.
The Agriculture Department is considering a restriction on white potatoes and other starchy vegetables because an Institute of Medicine panel noted that children have access to those items and need other vegetables both for their nutritional value and to reduce obesity.
Agriculture Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon said that he and his staff are reviewing 132,000 comments the agency has received on the school lunch rule, including those from people who oppose the limitation on starchy vegetables.
“We are certainly mindful that potatoes are among the most commonly purchased food items for the schools,” Concannon said. “When we promulgate the rule later this year, people will see we were paying attention.”
The National Family Farm Coalition and other groups that favor a rewrite of the USDA Packers and Stockyards rule had feared an amendment would be offered to limit USDA’s ability to rewrite that rule, and other lobbyists predicted an amendment to overturn the ban on the slaughter of horses for human consumption, but neither was offered.
Lobbyists suggested that since Kohl said he would oppose amendments, proponents of these measures would not have wanted a negative vote on the record at the committee level, but that they could be offered if the bill comes up independently on the Senate floor.