NSAC's Blog

Congress Back for Three Weeks – Time (Barely) for Action

September 10, 2010

Summer recess has come to a close and Congress returns to Washington next week, with three weeks and less than 12 actual legislative days before the start of the new federal fiscal year on October 1.

With a packed agenda – including a small business tax bill, extensions of some or all of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, numerous confirmations of high level administration appointees, and all of the appropriation bills – and the need for a quick exit in October to get back on the campaign trail before the elections in November, it remains to be seen whether any of the food and agricultural bills that are pending will get final action.

Read on for thoughts on registering citizen opinion next week with your congressional delegations, but first a quick summary of where things stand.

Food Safety Bill

The Senate may take up the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) in the coming weeks.  Certainly the most recent salmonella outbreak from mega factory egg facilities in Iowa have raised the political stakes, and the ongoing bipartisan support for the bill has always seemed like it should put it in play for floor time despite the crowded Senate calendar and torturous and often deadlocked Senate political situation.  However, it still remains unclear exactly if and when the bill will come to the floor.

A new version of the bill in the form of a “managers’ amendment” or substitute bill was released in August during the recess.  The managers’ package contains several critical amendments that were strongly supported by NSAC, including the:

  • Sanders (D-VT) amendment (requiring FDA to write regulations to determine low risk on-farm processing activities that can be exempt from regulatory requirement);
  • Bennet (D-CO) amendment (to reduce unnecessary paperwork and streamline requirements for farmers and small processors);
  • Stabenow (D-MI) amendment (to create a USDA-delivered competitive grants program for food safety training);
  • Boxer (D-CA) amendment (to eliminate anti-wildlife habitat language from the bill); and
  • Brown (D-OH) amendment (on traceability requirements, including exemptions for direct marketed and farm identity-preserved marketing).

Still pending is the Tester (D-MT) amendment to exempt or partially exempt small and mid-scale farms that primarily direct market to consumers, stores or restaurants within their local or regional area from preventative control regulations and produce standard regulations.  The final details of the Tester amendment are still in process as we go to press, but are likely to be worked out shortly between the amendment sponsor and the bill sponsors.

NSAC supports this amendment, though we are still pursuing improvements to it.  It is our strong desire that an improved Tester amendment be included in a revised version of the managers’ amendment and thus not need to be voted on as a separate amendment, shortening the needed floor time for the bill.

A Feinstein (D-CA) amendment to prohibit the use of Bisphenol A (BPA) in certain food and beverage containers has not been successfully compromised and will thus likely consume considerable floor time.

If the Senate takes up the bill this month 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.

While NSAC will endorse the Senate bill with the Tester amendment included in the managers’ amendment, 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 Senate.

Child Nutrition Bill

While the food safety bill awaits Senate action, the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition bill, governing school feeding programs and the WIC program, awaits House floor action.  The Senate passed its version of the bill on August 5, just before leaving town for summer recess.

The Senate bill includes a $4.5 billion increase in the school meal programs to improve access and nutritional quality, but pays for the increase in part through a scaling back of an increase to food stamp (SNAP) funding in the economic recovery act.  That food stamp offset has made it quite controversial.

The House bill approved by the Education and Labor Committee back in July has a higher price tag — $8 billion — but as of now still has none of the required offsets to pay for the increase.  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.

While anything could happen, three options seem most likely at this point if final action is to happen before September 30.

One, the House could very quickly come up with a modified bill that costs less than $8 billion but perhaps more than $4.5 billion and could replace the food stamp offset with a tax loophole-closing offset.  Under that scenario, assuming a quick House passage, the big question would be whether the Senate could take up and pass such a measure.

Two, the House could fail to come up with an alternative and could vote to approve the Senate bill, however distasteful the food stamp offset might be.

Three, it could take no action and punt further consideration of the bill to the lame duck session in November.  Under that scenario, barring some major breakthrough, it could well mean no new child nutrition bill at all.

Understanding the likely consequences of option three, the First Lady weighed in with her appeal to Congress to get the bill to the President’s desk this month in a September 8 speech in Louisiana.

Pigford II Settlement Funding

The funding bill for the $1.25 billion “Pigford II” settlement for African-American farmers who were discriminated against by USDA is still pending in the Senate after several attempts to clear it as parts of other bills earlier this year.  The funding, already approved by the House, was called a “priority” by President Obama in his September 10 press conference.

Just prior the summer recess, a bill to fund the settlement and a related federal government settlement with Native Americans was blocked by Senator Barrasso (R-WY).  No clear plans exist yet for bringing the bill back up in the Senate, though clearly it will need to be kept in the public limelight by the White House and USDA leadership to stand a chance of overcoming the opposition of a small minority of Senators from the minority party.

Agriculture Appropriations

The House has passed two of twelve appropriations bills for the fiscal year that officially begins October 1, which is two more than the Senate has taken up.  The only real question facing the spending bills for FY 2011 in the next few weeks is how long Congress will make the continuing resolution that will keep government spending on autopilot until they have a chance to pass the actual bills, and whether the continuing resolution might also require an across the board cut in spending below FY 2010 rates.  There is virtually no chance actual FY 2011 bills will become law until the lame duck session at best, or next year at worst.

Our hope is that they set a short time horizon for the continuing resolution and find a way to pass the bills, including the annual agriculture bill, in November or at least by early December.  Though with anger at government spending and deficits rampant, it is anything but a sure bet that a path forward can be found.

What you can do

Time is short.  The window for action is a mere 12 days.  Calls to Washington are needed immediately to voice your concerns.

1.     Call your Senators and urge them voice their support for adding the Tester farmer direct marketing amendment to the managers’ amendment to the food safety bill and to then vote for the managers’ amendment with the Tester language included.

2.     Also urge your Senators to support the bill funding for the Pigford II negotiated settlement between USDA and black farmers.

3.     Call your Representative and Senators and urge them to agree on a robust Child Nutrition bill, including a $50 million Farm to School program, during these next three weeks, with no further delay.

There are also very important USDA spending priorities at stake in the appropriations bill, but since final action will be postponed, we will save our thoughts on that bill for a later posting.

Categories: Action Alerts, Beginning and Minority Farmers, Budget and Appropriations, Food Safety, Local & Regional Food Systems, Nutrition & Food Access

Comments are closed.