NSAC's Blog

Weekly Update – December 5, 2008

December 7, 2008


Ag Appropriations and Stimulus Bill Timing Problem: As we have often reported, the appropriations process for Fiscal Year 2009 got stuck this summer and has remained stuck through the start of the fiscal year on October 1. Now two months into the fiscal year, the process is beginning to move again. Though the House version of agriculture appropriations never made it out of full Committee and the Senate version never made it to the floor, Congress is skipping several steps and moving straight to settling differences between the House Subcommittee-passed bill and the Senate full Committee-passed bill in a “staff conference.” Staff will come up with a draft final bill in December and after review by the appropriators themselves in early January, the bill, probably wrapped together with the other unfinished appropriations bill, will go to the House and Senate floor for final passage. The congressional Democratic leadership is aiming to have the final bills passed by Inauguration Day on January 20.

At the same time, work is underway (again) on a large economic stimulus package. The “safety net” portion of the stimulus bill will almost certainly include an extension of unemployment benefits and an increase in food stamp benefits. More uncertain, however, is whether it will also include emergency money to fully fund the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) feeding program. Neither the House nor Senate agriculture appropriations bill fully funds the WIC program. The pending Senate bill comes a bit closer than the House bill, but does so in large part by cutting over $400 million in farm bill funding for conservation, renewable energy, specialty crops, organic, and beginning farmers. Even with those cuts to mandatory spending, the bill still comes up significantly short.

The obvious solution is to provide the full additional amount needed for WIC in the stimulus bill and to remove the farm bill cuts from the appropriations bill. Therein lays the timing problem. Only if the stimulus package is considered ahead of the regular appropriations bill will that solution work. It is critical for all groups and citizens who care about hunger, nutrition, conservation, renewable energy, organic, and beginning farmers to tell Congress to take up the stimulus package first and to include WIC as well as food stamp funding. Please click here for our related action alert.

USDA Secretary Announcement Soon? The rumor mill is rife with new information this week on who President-elect Obama will appoint as Secretary of Agriculture. With the Obama transition at least a week ahead of previous transitions in making Cabinet selections, there is increasing expectation that the agriculture announcement will be next week or almost certainly by the week after.

After the initial, oft-printed suggestions that the pick would be Iowa Gov. Vilsack, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), former Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-TX), or NFU President Tom Buis, the completely new short list is rumored to be Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sibelius (who is also a final contender for the Dept. of Energy), Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-GA), and Rep. John Salazar (D-CA), plus longer shot contenders including PA Ag Commissioner Dennis Wolf, WI Ag Commissioner Rod Nilsestuen, and OR Ag Commissioner Katy Coba, and others.

Sibelius’ competition for the Energy Dept job includes MI Gov. Jennifer Granholm. It is wide expected that the term-limited Sibelius and oft-mentioned possible VP pick for Obama will come away with some slot in the new Administration if the offer is to her liking.

Salazar picked up key support by getting the nod of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus for the USDA job and also a ringing endorsement by Collin Peterson. The House Agriculture Committee Chairman is quoted in the press saying: “He’s a real farmer. I would like to see someone from producer agriculture be secretary.” and “The new secretary would have a sizable role in a congressional plan to reorganize the USDA, including eliminating some middle managers. Salazar supports the idea of that reorganization.” USDA reorganization is an emerging pet project of the House chairman.

Bishop meanwhile has substantial support from the Congressional Black Caucus. While an appropriator these days, he served on the House Agriculture Committee during two earlier farm bill debates. Bishop was a co-chair of Georgia for Obama. Both Bishop and Salazar are members of the fiscally and socially conservative Blue Dog Democratic caucus and Bishop is often regarded as among the most conservative member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Bishop was first elected to the House in 1992 and Salazar in 2004.

Elsewhere, the rumor mill stock of former NJ environment commissioner, former EPA employee, and current transition team member Lisa Jackson is rising as perhaps the likely next EPA Administrator. Also, the New York Times reported on Friday that Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA), a rising House Democratic leader with close ties to Speaker Pelosi, may get the nod to be the next US Special Trade Representative. If so, that would put a proponent of tougher labor and environmental trade agreement conditionality at the helm as chief trade negotiator.

More Fallout from GAO AGI Report: Last week, we reported on a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that revealed that more than 2,700 farmers received $49 million in commodity payments between 2003-2006 despite having incomes that should have made them ineligible (above $2.5 million). The report’s release has generated all kinds of buzz, from USDA, to President-elect Obama, to newly re-elected Senator Saxby Chambliss and other Members of Congress.

USDA Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner used his speech this week to the Farm Journal Forum in Washington, DC to respond to the media coverage of the report’s findings and to recognize the increasing likelihood that the next Administration will do something about payment limits given budget pressures and growing public awareness of the issue. He urged the farm interests in the audience that they should not wait until the next Administration makes a move — citing President-elect Obama’s recent comments of support for stronger payment limits to reduce federal spending — stating “we need to deal with [payment limits] ourselves.”

USDA will be issuing a new regulation on payment limit and AGI rules before the end of December, per the requirements in the new Farm Bill. The regulations will reveal whether Deputy Secretary Connor was seriously foreshadowing some final action on payment limits as a Bush Administration swan song or just talking a good game.

Newly re-elected Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) promised on Tuesday to continue to be a firewall against the Democratic agenda — including, presumably, a renewed effort to enforce payment limits which he has assiduously fought in the past. And while Representative Ron Kind (D-WI) used the GAO report and related comments by President-elect Obama to show off his own plans for legislation to strengthen oversight of federal subsidies, House Agriculture Chairman Colin Peterson (D-MN) reliably denied the effectiveness of payments limits and blamed a future increase in the cost of food on if subsidies are reduced.


Organic Crop Insurance RFP Posted: Taking the first step in what SAC expects will eventually result in significant improvements to the Federal crop insurance provisions, USDA released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for contractor services to study the issue of the current 5% insurance premium surcharge for organic growers. As required by the new farm bill, the selected contractor will be charged with reviewing the basis for the premium surcharge as well as also developing and recommending procedures to offer organic producers a price election for their crop that allows them to be reimbursed for their loss at the organic rate instead of the conventional rate. Based on the initial findings of the study, USDA will remove or adjust the premium surcharge and begin offering a price election for organic crops with sufficient data in time for the 2010 crop year. A copy of the RFP can be downloaded here.

Revised MILC Program Rule Announced: On Thursday, USDA published a final rule amending the regulations for the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) Program. The amendments reflect changes made in the 2008 Farm Bill, extending the program through September 30, 2012 and increasing payment rates and payment quantity limitations. The program, first authorized in the 2002 Farm Bill, is designed to stabilize and increase overall milk producer revenue. For more information, please see the complete edocket.

Cooperative Agreements for Heir Property: On Friday, USDA’s Rural Business- Cooperative Service (RBS) announced a Notice of Funds Availability (NOFA) for $230,000 in FY 2009 for cooperative agreements to develop and implement pilot programs aimed at assisting African Americans in rural areas deal with heir property issues. Specifically, programs should be focused on outreach/education that will assist farmers and homeowners with heir property issues to expand ownership and develop economically viable agriculture operations. Proposals and applications for FY 2009 will be due no later than 30 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register (December 5, 2008). Please see the complete edocket for more information.


EPA, Army Corps Issue New Guidance on the Scope of Water Act: On Wednesday, the EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers issued revised guidance on the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. The new guidance, which aims at clarifying the jurisdiction after a divided Supreme Court case in 2007 left some confusion, focuses on the issue of identification of traditional navigable waters and adjacent wetlands.

The new language defines traditional navigable waters as “those used, or susceptible to being used, for commercial navigation, including commercial waterborne recreation.” The new language also clarifies that a wetland is considered adjacent to navigable waters “if it has an unbroken hydrologic connection to jurisdictional waters or is separated from those waters by a berm or similar feature or is reasonably close to a jurisdictional water.” The issue of whether tributaries of navigable waters are under the jurisdiction of the Act is now left to regulators of the particular tributary in question.

Waters under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act are subject to regulatory requirements, including permits issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers for the dredging and filling of wetlands. Environmental groups, including the National Wildlife Federation and American Rivers, expressed concerns over the new language, stating that it may limit the scope of the act. In particular, linking commercial interests with the protection of waterways, as well as providing regulators with more power to make jurisdictional determinations, may have a detrimental impact on the protection of waterways. For more information about the new language and the Clean Water Act please visit here.


SARE and Heritage Turkeys: Just in time for the holidays, Montana beginning farmer Jacob Cowgill writes about his first year raising heritage turkeys with the help of a grant from Western SARE. Check out the full story in SAC’s Something to Crow About blog.

Categories: General Interest

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