May 28, 2010
Last week we reported on several major pending pieces of legislation. At that time, two bills — the so-called tax extenders bill and the emergency supplemental appropriations bill — seemed like they might be resolved by today, the beginning of the congressional recess week for Memorial Day. Alas, while progress was made on both this week, final resolution will now not occur until after the Memorial Day recess is over.
Today the House passed a $115 billion version of the extenders bill, pared down from the earlier nearly $200 billion version. Action came too late for the Senate to take up the bill, however.
The Senate meanwhile last night passed its $59 billion version of the emergency supplemental appropriations bill, but House Appropriations Committee markup of their $84 billion version of the bill was postponed in light of all the action on the House floor on the extenders bill.
With final action on both bills extending into June and the likelihood of significant differences between House and Senate bills, it could easily take several more weeks to reach resolution.
Tax Extender Bill
The tax extender bill as passed by the House retains the three big items related to agriculture — $1.15 billion for the Pigford II USDA settlement with black farmers who faced USDA discrimination, the $1.5 billion agricultural disaster package, and the $868 million one-year extension of the biodiesel tax credits. Unless removed or modified during Senate floor action the week of June 7, these will become law when the final bill is passed.
In the meantime, the $80 billion cut to the bill to pare it down to a $115 billion measure — a cut primarily made to accommodate ‘Blue Dog’ Democrats — will be the cause of a good deal of advocacy during the coming recess week. The cuts included scaling back the number of years for fixing doctor payments under Medicare and eliminating emergency assistance to state governments and COBRA health insurance benefits for laid off workers. Chances are the Senate will consider amendments to add back some or all of those Blue Dog-instigated changes.
The House passed the measure in an unusual two-step fashion. By a vote of 215-204, it passed everything except for the Medicare physician payment fix, which was then voted separately on a 245-171 vote. The Senate will likely re-unite the measures.
With respect to the emergency supplemental appropriation, the details of the House bill that will now be marked up after recess were released on Wednesday. Like the Senate version, the bulk of the bill is for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan plus funding for veterans and aid to Haiti.
For agriculture, like the Senate bill, funding is provided for desperately needed supplemental farm operating loans. The House bill provides enough appropriated dollars for USDA to provide $850 million in loans and loan guarantees. The Senate version, approved yesterday, would provide $950 million. The offsetting cuts to provide funds for these additional loans also differ – the House bill would rescind previously appropriated but unused funds within Farm Service Agency accounts, while the Senate bill would scale back the Biomass Crop Assistance Program.
NSAC supports the emergency farm credit money and we remain hopeful that Congress can finish action on the supplemental after the recess without significant further delay.
In a related note, USDA’s Farm Service Agency today posted a new webpage that specifies how much money is left in each of its rapidly dwindling farm credit accounts and includes frequently asked questions section to help farmers understand the funding situation and what happens as funds expire.
In news related to congressional consideration of funding for the Pigford II settlement, on Thursday government lawyers and lawyers for Native American farmers jointly asked for and received from U.S. District Court for D.C. a continuation until July 29 of the discussion period to work out a settlement in the Keepseagle v. Vilsack case. Also this week, USDA and the Justice Department announced the establishment of a $1.13 billion fund at Justice that would be used to make payments to women and Hispanic farmers who can prove they were discriminated against by USDA. All four discrimination cases pending against USDA thus moved somewhat closer to resolution this week.
Switching to the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization measure, three important things happened this week. First, a bipartisan letter from 53 Senators was sent to the Senate Democratic and Republican leaders urging them to take up the $4.5 billion bill approved unanimously by the Senate Agriculture Committee earlier this year.
Second, as part of a defense bill, the House approved, 341-85, a non-binding “sense of Congress” resolution that the child nutrition bill should be funded at the $10 billion level requested by the Obama Administration, noting that hunger and obesity are impairing military recruitment. An earlier letter signed by 221 House Members also endorsed the $10 billion number.
Third, the House Education and Labor Committee announced that after recess a child nutrition bill will be released that will serve as the vehicle for a Committee mark-up later in June. We expect that bill, like the Senate counterpart, to include mandatory funding for the Farm to School program, an NSAC priority.
Whatever the level of total funding in the emerging House child nutrition bill, the big issue will be how to pay for it. The Senate measure uses a controversial cut to farm bill conservation funding for about half of its offset. That cut is facing stiff opposition in the House. However, if the House bill emerges out of Committee with a bigger price tag than the Senate bill, as seems likely, that will make the job of finding offsets even harder. Attention will focus on the Ways and Means Committee and closing egregious tax loopholes as way to fund better school meals for more children.
Final passage of the child nutrition bill will be a race against time in an election-year shortened congressional calendar. Hopefully this week’s letters, resolutions, and mark-upl announcements bode well for a summer in which the pace picks up considerably.