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Published March 14, 2011, 04:15 AM

Ag interests could feel pinch with earmarks decision

WASHINGTON — The potential impact of Congress’ decision not to include earmarks in the 2012 budget became apparent at a March 8 Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, when Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., urged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to continue the National Drought Mitigation Center in Omaha and Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., stressed the importance of the University of Arkansas’ National Agricultural Law Center.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — The potential impact of Congress’ decision not to include earmarks in the 2012 budget became apparent at a March 8 Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, when Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., urged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to continue the National Drought Mitigation Center in Omaha and Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., stressed the importance of the University of Arkansas’ National Agricultural Law Center.

Both institutions have benefited from earmarks, provisions in appropriations bills that direct funds to be spent on designated projects in a House member’s district or a senator’s state. Earmarks have come to be symbols of excess government spending, but lobbyists think that senators and House members still will try to direct spending to their states.

Stating their cases

Mark Rokala, an appropriations lobbyist with Cornerstone Government Affairs, recently suggested that members of the House and senators would use “phone marks” or “letter marks” to inform agencies of what they expect.

Both Nelson and Pryor said their projects should continue because of their national importance.

The drought center “might exist in Nebraska, but its impact is nationwide,” Nelson said. Pryor noted that the law center offers a master’s degree in agricultural law and is a national clearing house for agricultural information.

USDA has listed its support for the law center as “terminated,” but Vilsack said that is because USDA is in the process of prioritizing its research programs on a national basis and has listed all earmarks as “terminated.”

“I am not sure I agree with your definition of earmarks,” Pryor said.

Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., asked Vilsack why he did not include money in the budget for implementing the catfish inspection regime that Congress directed in the 2008 farm bill be moved from the Food and Drug Administration to USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service. Vilsack said it would have been inappropriate because the rule establishing the program has not yet been finalized.

“I hope you don’t filibuster like we do sometimes here in the Senate,” Cochran said, adding that USDA should put the catfish regime in place so appropriators can provide money for it.

Catfish, coal, potatoes

Moving catfish inspection to USDA is highly controversial because Asian catfish farmers and the Embassy of Vietnam contend it is intended to make it difficult for Asian catfish to enter U.S. markets. American catfish producers contend that unsafe Asian catfish has been entering the United States.

“It’s important for consumers to know what they are eating, that it is safe,” Pryor said.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., urged Vilsack to use USDA rural development programs to develop clean coal technology, but the secretary seemed focused on biofuels. Vilsack said that rather than eliminating support for biofuels, which could send the industry “over a cliff,” it would be better to send the industry on a “glidepath” to self-sufficiency through aid for flex-fuel vehicles and blender pumps.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, also questioned USDA’s decision not to allow money from the special nutrition program for women, infants and children, known as WIC, to be spent on white potatoes. The white potato is the only vegetable that cannot be purchased with WIC money, and the Agriculture Department appears to be planning to limit its use in the school lunch program, Collins said. The white potato has twice as much vitamin C, four times the potassium and as much dietary fiber as a head of iceberg lettuce, which can be bought with WIC money, she said.

Collins noted that she “has nothing against iceberg lettuce,” but is pro-Maine potatoes.

Vilsack replied that USDA has nothing against white potatoes, but that WIC is supposed to be a supplementary program and that families already are buying white potatoes. The goal in the changes in the school lunch program, he said, is not the elimination of the white potato but to change the cooking method away from frying.

“The government sends a signal when it lists every vegetable other than the white potato,” and that signal can be perceived as a negative one,” Collins added.

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