Legislative Update and Action
September 17th, 2010
One week down, three weeks maximum left to go before the congressional recess prior to the November elections. The Senate this week passed the small business tax cut bill and draft bills and trial balloons are circulating on the big tax cut extension bill, but on the four bills left on the NSAC agenda – child nutrition, food safety, Pigford settlement funding, and agricultural appropriations – there is not a lot of new hard news to transmit. Here is the quick update, followed by suggestions for continued grassroots action.
Food Safety Bill — Part One: Coburn Objection
The big news this week on the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s pronouncement on Thursday that due to obstruction tactics by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), he will not bring the food safety bill to the Senate floor during this congressional work period. Reid could get around Coburn’s objections only by filing for cloture on the bill, a three day process that would eat up limited time remaining before the recess and a road Reid does not want to go down.
Commentators are divided on whether Reid’s pronouncement is merely a tactic to put pressure on Coburn to remove his stick from the spokes of the legislative wheel or whether it truly signifies that the prospects for a bill this year are really over.
Coburn has a variety of substantive complaints about the measure, but his primary objection and talking point is the bill’s cost. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill, if fully funded, would cost $1.4 billion.
S. 510 is an authorization bill, meaning it sets certain policies and authorizes the appropriations committees to consider funding some or the entire bill as part of a subsequent agricultural appropriations bill. There is no mandatory funding involved. Hence, how much of the measure actually gets implemented, and how much government spending occurs if the bill becomes law, ultimately gets decided during consideration of the annual appropriations bills over the coming several years.
Despite this well-known legislative process and demarcation between authorizing and appropriations bills, Coburn is insisting that the Senate “pay for” the bill by cutting other federal programs by $1.4 billion. That “pay for” or “pay-go” process is routinely required for bills with mandatory spending, but not for authorizing measures that are reliant on later appropriations.
While Coburn is inappropriately mixing apples and oranges, the underlying concern about how much it would cost to actually implement a bill that significantly notches up regulation, inspection, and enforcement is real. The House companion measure, approved last year, addresses the problem in part by tacking on a $500 per food facility tax or user fee on producers and processors. NSAC strongly objects to that highly regressive feature that treats small farmers the same as multinational food corporations. Even with the fee, the House bill still primarily relies on future appropriations in its bill too.
The sponsors of the Senate bill have adamantly refused to add a user fee tax to its version of the bill, despite Obama Administration support for the tax. NSAC will continue to oppose any measure that includes a regressive tax feature.
Food Safety Bill — Part Two: Tester Amendment
Excellent progress was made this week on the proposed provision sponsored by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) to:
(a) create a size-appropriate alternative to the bill’s preventative control plan requirements for very small processing facilities (both on-farm and off-farm) as well as for small and some mid-sized farms that primarily direct market their products to consumers, stores, or restaurants and do so within state boundaries or within 400 miles of the farm; and
(b) exempt from produce standard regulations small and some mid-sized farms that primarily direct market their products to consumers, stores, or restaurants and do so within state boundaries or within 400 miles of the farm.
The Tester language would also continue the current FDA regulations exempting farms that do on-farm processing and primarily direct market direct to consumers from the requirement to even register as a food facility with the FDA.
A variety of improvements to the provision that had been suggested by NSAC were incorporated into the final version of the provision earlier this past week. We are continuing to urge the bill and amendment sponsors to incorporate the final version of the Tester provision into the Manager’s Package of amendments to be considered en bloc when and if the bill gets to the Senate floor. If this comes to pass, we are prepared to support final passage of the Senate bill.
As we noted last week, if the Senate takes up the bill and passes it, it still must be “conferenced” with the quite different food safety bill approved by the House in 2009. That would not happen until the “lame duck” session of Congress in late November and early December even if the Senate acted before leaving town on October 8. We remain strongly opposed to the House bill and would oppose any final bill that does not contain all of the important advances made in the pending Senate version.
Child Nutrition Bill
Last week we summarized the precarious state of the Child Nutrition reauthorization measure. Nothing major has changed in the past week. The House has still yet to work out a clear path forward to vote on a measure that might improve upon the bill already approved by the Senate.
Supporters of the Senate measure, including the Administration, have given House leadership this week to try to come up with a better bill and with a way of paying for it that does not involve the cuts to the food stamp program contained in the Senate version. But as yet, there is no announcement from House leaders as to what that alternative might look like. Clearly, the clock is ticking and if a viable House strategy is going to be found, it will be needed next week or the current bill will need to be extended and Congress can then decide whether to deal with the new bill during the lame duck session after the elections in November or possibly to punt it and start over again next year.
As we noted again last week, the Senate bill includes $40 million and the House Committee bill $50 million in mandatory funding for the Farm to School program, an NSAC priority.
Pigford II Settlement Funding
Funding to pay for the “Pigford II” settlement for African-American farmers who were discriminated against by USDA has this week been included in a draft tax extension bill being worked on by Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) and his Finance Committee staff. The tax bill may well be the last big measure taken up by Congress before the October recess. NSAC is continuing to advocate for the inclusion of the Pigford funding in that bill or any other vehicle that will clear Congress before the recess.
Congress has not yet taken up the Continuing Resolution to keep government functions funded until appropriations bills can be taken up during the lame duck session or early next year. Details about the continuing resolution will likely appear as we get closer to the start of the new fiscal year on October 1.
What you can do
Time is short – and getting shorter. We encourage action calls to continue on these messages:
1. Call your Senators and urge them voice their support for adding the Tester farmer direct marketing amendment to the manager’s amendment to the food safety bill and to then vote for the manager’s amendment with the Tester language included.
2. Call your Representative and Senators and urge them to agree on a robust Child Nutrition bill, including a $50 million Farm to School program, without delay.
3. Call your Representative and Senators to support funding for the Pigford II negotiated settlement between USDA and black farmers.