December 17, 2010
In the early evening on December 16, Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) pulled the pending omnibus appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2011 when it became clear that no Republicans would vote for it. Earlier in the week, at least five and possibly as many as nine Republicans were indicating privately they would support the government-wide spending bill for the fiscal year that started in October. Had those votes stayed committed, the measure would have passed and been quickly adopted by the House of Representatives.
The government has been operating under a short-term continuing resolution (CR) that expires Saturday night, December 18.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who rallied all 42 Republican Senators to united opposition to the omnibus bill many of them had a huge hand in crafting, made it known that he would not accept the omnibus or the House-passed long-term CR. Instead, he will insist on another short-term CR to keep the government funded at static levels until February, when the new House Republican majority will get its turn to write the 2011 spending measure. With the Senate operating under rules requiring a super majority of 60 votes to shut off debate, united Republican opposition means nothing moves except bills the minority backs.
While McConnell had earlier agreed with the Democratic strategy of attaching the food safety modernization bill to the omnibus and to the long-term CR, that deal did not reach to the third option, the short term CR, which is now the only option left standing. All Republican offices that NSAC has communicated with today say the food safety bill is dead. Unless McConnell reverses gear and agrees to put the food safety bill on the short-term CR, it appears the bill, despite passing by overwhelming margins in both the House and the Senate, is out of options and will die.
As we go to press, there are still discussions happening on Capitol Hill trying to salvage important appropriations priorities as well as the food safety bill, but prospects appear dim in this era where the politics of obstructionism has risen to the level of an art form. If things change, we will be sure to let readers know.
Until Thursday morning, it appeared that there might well be sufficient Republican votes to pass the combined omnibus appropriations and food safety modernization bill. Retiring Republican Senators Robert Bennett (R-UT) and Kit Bond (R-MO) had been openly organizing another handful of Republican Senators to support the measure. The others were widely rumored to include Senators Cochran (MS), Murkowski (AK), Collins (ME), and Voinovich (OH), among others.
If the short-term CR that passes Congress in the coming days is kept fairly clean, with few if any funding adjustments to 2010 levels, it would undue the changes, both positive and negative, on sustainable agriculture priorities in the omnibus bill. For instance, the most significant increase in funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program in history, a catch-up $10 million investment that was long overdue, would fail and SARE would revert to level funding. The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) would also lose out on a $26 million increase contained in the omnibus. First-time funding of $35 million for USDA to invest in a Healthy Food Financing Initiative would be lost, as would explicit authority for USDA rural development programs to invest a portion of total funding in regional innovation.
On the other hand, reductions in funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, and Biomass Crop Assistance Program contained in the omnibus would disappear and funding would resume at farm bill mandatory funding levels.
If the food safety bill dies, it will not mark the end of new food safety regulations. Rather, the Food and Drug Administration and President Obama’s designated political appointees for food safety will proceed as previously announced to write produce standard rules and enhanced food processing controls on the basis of current broad authorities. The key missing ingredient will be the specific directives contained in the legislation to, for instance, avoid one-size-fits-all regulation, remove some on-farm processing activities from regulatory control based on a risk assessment, conform food safety rules with farm conservation and environmental requirements, and coordinate food safety rules and activities with USDA’s National Organic Program, among others.
We will write at least one more post on this combined appropriations and food safety situation as Congress finalizes its work for the year in the coming days.