October 23, 2011
Early in the morning of Friday, October 21, the Senate voted (83-16) to end debate on a fiscal year 2012 (FY12) appropriations package of bills including the FY12 Senate agriculture appropriations bill. No more than 30 more hours of debate will be allowed before the bill is voted upon once the Senate returns from its week long recess on October 31. The package, known in Capitol Hill-speak as a “minibus,” includes Commerce-Justice-Science and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development as well as the agriculture bill.
The Senate agriculture bill, which passed through the Appropriations Committee by voice vote on Wednesday, September 7, cuts farm bill mandatory conservation programs by 12 percent, or $726 million, on top of the half billion dollar cut contained in the FY 2011 agriculture appropriations bill. While a disappointing and massive cut, this is better than the over $1 billion cut by the House bill, which passed earlier this year. Our previous reporting included a full description of the funding levels for conservation, rural development, credit, and research programs contained in the Senate bill.
Votes on Amendments
Before the cloture vote to end debate, four agriculture-related amendments of significance were voted upon.
First, the Senate passed an amendment offered by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to prohibit direct payments to individuals or entities with an average adjusted gross income in excess of $1 million per year. Current law already prohibits direct payments to individuals with more than $500,000 in non-farm adjusted gross income and to individuals with more than $750,000 in farm adjusted gross income. For most married couples, those current limits, as well as the new Coburn provision, are doubled.
The Coburn amendment would affect only those very few farmers who have more than $750,000 in farm adjusted income or more than $500,000 in non-farm adjusted income and in combination have over $1 million in adjusted income ($2 million in the case of most married couples). That is adjusted income, so after deductions for farm operating expenses, land and equipment purchases, insurance, and all other expenses. The amendment affects only direct payments, not any of the other types of production subsidies. Direct payments are widely expected to either be eliminated or greatly reduced in the next farm bill, making the amendment more symbolic than real even if it did affect many people, which it does not. The 84-15 vote on the amendment nonetheless demonstrates the overwhelming sentiment in favor of placing caps on federal farm subsidies. Hopefully later in the budget and farm bill process, the same sentiment will yield a positive vote on a real rather than symbolic measure.
Second, the Senate rejected (41-58) an amendment offered by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) that would have ended so-called categorical eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamp benefits for persons qualifying for certain other benefits for low-income families and individuals.
Third, the Senate passed an amendment offered by Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) to prevent USDA from limiting the frequency of serving starchy vegetables in school meals. The amendment also prohibits USDA from limiting the options of local school districts in providing fruits and vegetables consistent with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This was largely in response to a move by USDA, based on Institute of Medicine health recommendations, to reduce the amount of potatoes and other starchy vegetables allowed in school meals.
Fourth, the Senate approved (58-41) an $110 million emergency spending increase in emergency conservation and watershed protection funding proposed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and a $8 million increase in the watershed rehabilitation (or dam rehab) program proposed by Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS).
Other Amendments Offered
There are many more amendments to be voted on when the Senate returns; however, we do not yet know the order in which the votes will occur.
Amongst the most egregious is an amendment offered by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) to remove a provision that ensures that the uncharacteristically low funding levels provided for conservation programs in the 2012 funding bill would not be taken as the baseline funding levels throughout the next farm bill cycle. If Senator McCain’s amendment were to become law, hundreds of millions of dollars would be cut from the Conservation Title baseline in each of the next 10 years. NSAC vehemently opposes this amendment.
Senator Tom Coburn has offered an amendment to cut the total amount of funds available to USDA’s Rural Development Agency by $1 billion, to be applied proportionally to each budget activity and rural development program. This represents a 40 percent cut to USDA’s rural development mission, a mission area that has already suffered an over 30 percent cut in the past decade. In his justification for the amendment, Coburn points to a number of cases in which rural development money went to urban or non-agricultural projects. Rather than address those issues directly, however, the Coburn amendment would apply massive across-the-board cuts to programs such as the Value-Added Producer Grants Program and the Rural Microenterprise Assistance Program that are truly focused on rural economic development. NSAC also vehemently opposes this amendment.
Other amendments of note include:
Process Moving Forward
The Senate returns to D.C. on Monday, October 31. It is conceivable that the appropriations minibus, which covers five departments as well as space and science agencies, could be voted upon as early as Tuesday, November 1.
The current continuing resolution, which is keeping the government running at close to FY11 levels, expires on November 18; so Congress must either pass all 12 annual appropriations bills by then, or pass another continuing resolution to buy more time. The Senate has only passed one appropriations bill so far, while the House has passed only six.
Before final funding levels are set for FY 2012, the Senate must vote on remaining amendments and pass the bill. The bill must then be reconciled with the House appropriations bill before being signed by the President. While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has expressed an interest in passing a series of minibus compilations of appropriations bills, it is not clear that this will happen. Equally possible is that the Senate and House will each pass an omnibus appropriations package to be reconciled and sent to the President.
NSAC has already taken action to ensure that some of the amendments listed above do not surface for a vote, or if they do, are voted down. We will continue to monitor the action in the Senate and will report on important developments when the process resumes early next month.