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Published September 12, 2011, 05:41 AM

Ag appropriations bill approved

WASHINGTON — The Senate Appropriations Committee Sept. 7 approved a $19.78 billion fiscal year 2012 Agriculture appropriations bill that provides less discretionary spending than either the 2010 or 2011 bills, but left potential controversial amendments for the Senate floor even though some senators are worried that the bill never will come up as an individual piece of legislation. 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.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — The Senate Appropriations Committee Sept. 7 approved a $19.78 billion fiscal year 2012 Agriculture appropriations bill that provides less discretionary spending than either the 2010 or 2011 bills, but left potential controversial amendments for the Senate floor even though some senators are worried that the bill never will come up as an individual piece of legislation.

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.

Difficult reductions

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, noted that the Agriculture bill and those for energy and water and homeland security, which also were passed Sept. 7 all had to endure cuts that “are not easy” and are dramatically below the levels proposed by President Obama.

“These cuts are real and difficult to implement, but that is the will of the Congress and the charter of this committee,” Inouye said.

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 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. 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-Wis., 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.

Cuts to conservation

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 with $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 half -billion-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. Given the Senate Appropriations Committee action today, we hope the new budget supercommittee 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,” he said.

Funding categories

The bill’s provisions by major funding categories:

- Domestic nutrition: More than one third of the bill’s domestic discretionary budget — $6.58 billion — goes to the WIC program, the only major nutrition program that is not an entitlement and is funded on a discretionary basis. Although the amount is lower than the $6.73 billion that the fiscal year 2011 bill provided WIC, Kohl said it is enough to fully fund participation in the program because participation rates are lower than estimated. USDA officials have noted that birth rates have gone down during the recession. Other discretionary nutrition programs got $382 million compared with $393 million in fiscal year 2011, including $176 million for the commodity supplemental food program.

- Food safety: The bill provides $1.01 billion for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, an amount that Kohl said included the full funding request for federal, state and international inspection activities and will allow FSIS to continue modernizing its workforce and improving food safety systems. The bill also provided the only increase outside food aid to the Food and Drug Administration, in part to help the agency begin implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act. The bill provides $2.5 billion for FDA compared with $2.45 billion in fiscal year 2011.

- Research: The bill provides $2.31 billion for the National Insitute on Food and Agriculture and the Agricultural Research Service, down from $2.35 billion in fiscal year 2011. Within NIFA, which funds research at land grant colleges and other institutions, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative was funded at $266 million, the Hatch Act at $236 million, the McIntire-Stennis Cooperative Forestry program at $33 million and Smith-Lever at $296 million.

- Rural Development: The bill reduces most programs. The bill provides $1.09 billion for housing and community programs compared with $1.22 billion in fiscal year 2011, $119 million for business programs compared to $128 million in fiscal year 2011, and $557 million for the Rural Utilities Service compared with $597 million in 2011.

- Farm loans: The bill provides $404 million for farm loan programs, compared with $461 million in fiscal year 2011.

- Salaries and expenses: The bill substantially reduces the salaries and expense budgets for the Farm Service Agency, which distributes farm subsidies, and the Rural Development division. The bill provides $1.18 billion for FSA salaries and expenses compared with $1.21 billion in 2011. For Rural Development, the bill provides $654 million for salaries and expenses, compared with $688 million in 2011.

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