December 17, 2014
Both the House and Senate have now finished, bringing this Congress to a close. A new Congress — the 114th — begins in January.
This post summarizes some end of session activity.
Government Spending Bill — The Senate approved the so-called “cromnibus” appropriations bill on Saturday, December 13 and the bill was signed into law by President Obama on Tuesday, December 16.
As we reported previously, the bill included hundreds of millions of dollars of damaging cuts to farm bill conservation programs and an unprecedented directive for USDA to rescind regulations that protect contract livestock and poultry farmers in their relationship with multinational meat and poultry corporations.
On the positive side, the measure also includes a historic increase in funding for direct farm ownership loans that will result in thousands of loans to beginning and minority farmers to purchase farmland, as well as first-time funding for a new farmer food safety training program, among other highlights.
The term cromnibus was created to signal that the measure was an omnibus spending bill covering all of the government for the rest of Fiscal Year 2015, with the exception of the Department of Homeland Security, which was kept on autopilot spending levels from 2014 – known as a continuing resolution or CR – through February, at which point the newly installed Republican majority in the Senate and House hope to take some form of action to reverse the President’s recent executive action on immigration reform.
Tax Subsidy Bill — On December 16, the Senate approved a measure passed earlier by the House to extend numerous tax breaks for businesses and individuals through the end of this calendar year, allowing firms to use the tax breaks on their 2014 tax returns, but leaving up in the air whether those tax subsidies will be available again in 2015 or not.
The single year extension of more than 50 tax breaks costs $45 billion. An earlier deal for a multiyear extension fell apart in part due to cost (over $400 billion) and in part due to the exclusion from the package of tax benefits for low-income families. The measure now moves to the President who has indicated he will sign it.
Included in the package are the production tax credit for wind energy, biodiesel tax incentive, and biofuel producer credit. Also in the bill are the new market tax credit, research and development tax credit, and bonus depreciation and business capital purchases expensing provisions, as well as enhanced charitable treatment for food inventory donations and contributions of real estate for conservation purposes.
Commodity Subsidy Reform — On December 15, Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Tim Johnson (D-SD), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) along with Representatives Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) wrote to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack urging him to use his long-standing authority to reform the “actively engaged in farming” rules to prevent mega farms from abusing the commodity payment programs by collecting multiple payments in seeming violation of the farm bill’s statutory limits.
The letter also urges the Secretary to follow the reform provisions included in both the House and Senate-passed farm bills that were subsequently jettisoned by the Agriculture Committee leaders meeting in behind closed doors final negotiating sessions on the 2014 Farm Bill. Those provisions, which had strong bipartisan support, included closes the existing loopholes in the actively engaged rules and replacing them with an allowance for a single farm manager to qualify for payments in addition to the farm operators.
NSAC endorses the substance of this letter.
Grassland Protection “Sodsaver” Implementation — Also on December 15, Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and John Thune (R-SD) wrote to Secretary Vilsack urging strong implementation of the 2014 Farm Bill’s sodsaver provision, reducing crop insurance subsidies for conversion of grassland to cropland in six states (ND, SD, MT, IA, MN, and NE).
The letter specifically urged submittal of forms to USDA of anticipated new breakings as a means of attempting to prevent the sodbusting activity rather than needing to penalize the producer after the activity takes place.
The letter also recommends that the five-acre exemption to the sodsaver rule be determined on a cumulative basis and that sodsaver penalties apply to the first four years that an annual crop is planted on what was native sod.
NSAC endorses the substance of this letter as well.
Antibiotic Use in Meat Production — One more December 15 letter to Secretary Vilsack as well as the Secretaries of Defense and Health and Human Services deals with the issue of the routine use of antibiotics in animal production. The letter, from Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) requests a plan to address the critical gaps in current Food and Drug Administration (FDA) policies on antibiotic use in agriculture.
The Senators question whether the FDA has the authority to police its current standards, has data collection mechanisms in place to evaluate if their policies are working, and has metrics in place to determine if additional action is necessary.
NSAC shares the Senators’ concerns with the current policy.