Dispatches from The Hill | July 2015

FY16 Agricultural Appropriations Process
The House and Senate Appropriations Committees are continuing to grind through their subcommittee process, but none of the bills are likely to become law until some sort of deal to address the budget caps from the Budget Control Act of 2010 is reached between the Republican Congressional leadership and the White House. If no deal is reached by the end of the fiscal year on September 30, 2015, either a continuing resolution must be enacted or a federal government shutdown would ensue.

The House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee marked up their bill on June 18, and the full Committee markup was held on July 8. The reported bill represents an overall reduction of discretionary spending for USDA and other agencies funded in the bill by $175 million compared to fiscal year 2015 (FY15) levels and $1.1 billion less than the level requested by the President. It cuts key programs such as: those under all four Research, Education, and Economics (REE) agencies by $34 million cumulatively; rural development; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) by $143 million; the Title II 'Food for Peace' program by $49 million; Conservation Operations by $12 million; and reduces mandatory farm bill spending on conservation programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and renewable energy programs, including Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), and Biorefinery Assistance Program.

The House Agricultural Appropriations bill also contains a number of policy riders, which if enacted, would roll back several changes in recent legislation, including reinstating the use of marketing loan certificates, delaying the implementation of conservation compliance for users of the federal crop insurance program, and relaxing some of the nutrition requirements in the federal school lunch program. It also would restrict the type of recommendations that could be made in association with dietary guidelines issued on a regular basis by USDA. This particular rider was aimed at recommendations made by a scientific advisory panel that USDA consider environmental impacts of dietary choices, but it would also have the effect of limiting the recommendations that could be made about the nutritional benefits of certain categories of food.

The Senate Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee held its markup on July 14, and the full Committee on July 16. In the Senate version, total discretionary spending levels are pegged at $65 million below FY15 levels, or about $110 million higher than the House version. Relative to FY15 levels, the bill slightly increases funding for agricultural research with small increases for the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and small cuts to National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA); cuts funding for WIC, but to a lesser extent less than does the House bill; and increases funding for Conservation Operations. It does cut mandatory funds for EQIP and BCAP, but it leaves CSP acres as is. Funding for the Title II 'Food for Peace' program is flat at $1.466 billion.

The Senate bill would provide $10 million for the USDA Local and Regional Procurement (LRP) food aid program authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill that was not previously funded. The House bill provides no funding for this program.

The Senate bill has fewer controversial policy riders than the House bill. For example, it does not include a delay to conservation compliance for crop insurance or a reinstatement of marketing certificates. It does include a temporary waiver for whole grain requirements under the new school lunch nutritional guidelines, but it has less stringent language than the House bill with respect to recommendations related to USDA dietary guidelines. It includes a ban on horse slaughter and a requirement to label GMO salmon that are not in the House bill, and it requires USDA to delay allowing fresh beef imports from Brazil and Argentina.

Global Food Security Legislation
The House version of the Global Food Security Act (GFSA) bill, HR.1567, is still awaiting action by the full House. As of mid-July, the bill had 56 additional co-sponsors, 21 R's and 35 D's. The hope was to get the bill onto the House suspension calendar as a noncontroversial bill, as was the case last fall, but the path through the House now appears to be a bit rockier than in 2014. In June, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), sent a letter to the House Parliamentarian asserting joint jurisdiction over the legislation and asking for a sequential referral to his Committee. The staffs of the respective Committees are negotiating exactly what role the House Agriculture Committee might take in this process. It is likely that the House will take further action on their GFSA bill in the fall.

The lead co-sponsors of the Senate companion bill, Senators Casey and Isakson, introduced their version of the GFSA bill on May 7 (S.1252). There are now five additional co-sponsors: Senators Coons, Collins, Durbin, Feinstein, and Boozman. There is some hope that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a mark-up on this bill after the August recess.

On June 18, a unique coalition of U.S. farm and commodity groups, NGO's, and development program implementers sent a letter to the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The letter expressed the group’s support for a comprehensive U.S. strategy to address global food security and encouraged the four Committees to work together to better leverage the strengths of U.S. agriculture and the USDA in this area.

House Agriculture Committee Food Aid Hearings
Beginning in late June, the House Agriculture Committee started a series of oversight hearings on the operation of U.S. international food aid programs. In the first hearing on June 24, the full Committee heard from Mr. Tom Staal, Acting Assistant USAID Administrator, and Mr. Phil Karsting, Administrator of USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), to discuss the programs under their agencies' management. In the opening statements, Chairman Conaway focused on the food aid reforms undertaken in the 2014 Farm Bill and his desire to see their impacts before proceeding with additional reforms, while ranking member Peterson cautioned against reforms at this time, not wanting to re-open a farm bill that was so difficult to complete. Many of the questions and discussions during the course of the hearing focused on the merits of commodity-versus cash-based food assistance and the steps being taken to limit fraud or abuse.

A second hearing on July 9 at the Subcommittee level focused on a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) which looked at controls over distribution and targeting of cash-based food assistance provided under the Emergency Food Security Program (EFSP) in the last few years. The report identified several problems in accounting for modifications to how assistance is distributed in specific countries and provided recommendations to USAID on ways to strengthen their oversight. Many of the member questions addressed problems with cash-based assistance, but witnesses noted that similar problems exist with commodity-based donations as well.

On July 8, Chairman Conaway and Rep. David Rouzer (R-NC), chair of the House Agriculture subcommittee with jurisdiction over food aid programs, sent a letter to the Administrators of USAID, FAS, and the Maritime Administration (MARAD) seeking more information about the purported deal reached on food aid and maritime issues earlier this year.

Recent Trade Policy Developments
For the first time since 2002, a U.S. President has been given Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) by Congress. The TPA legislation was nearly torpedoed twice – initially in the Senate in mid-May when most pro-trade Democrats withheld votes on a cloture motion to begin debate in order to get a commitment for a parallel vote to renew authority for the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program. On the second occasion a few weeks later, House Democrats banded together to vote down a TAA extension in order to stall the entire legislative package that included TPA being advanced. However, in late June, legislation granting TPA as well as a separate bill reauthorizing TAA, the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), and the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) were enacted by Congress and signed by the President. The final version of AGOA renewal included the augmentation of technical assistance for agricultural trade-capacity building in Africa that had been added during Finance Committee consideration of the bill by the chair and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

The TPA vote was a procedural one, with Congress foregoing the right to amend any legislation they consider that implements trade agreements reached over the next six years. Congress has provided other presidents with similar authority six times previously, starting with the Trade Act of 1974 during President Nixon’s second term in office. The Obama Administration is currently engaged in two sets of negotiations that would be covered by this TPA grant: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 11 nations along the Pacific Rim, which by all reports is nearing completion; and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the 28-member European Union, which is much less advanced than the TPP negotiations. The merits of the deals themselves must await completion of those negotiations.

The passage of these bills was almost uniformly welcomed by U.S. farm and commodity groups, even the dairy groups which had once been skeptical of TPP because of the chance it would lead to an expansion of New Zealand's dairy exports into the United States. The main farm group that did not hail the passage of TPA was National Farmers Union, which objected to the lack of transparency in the negotiating process and believes that past trade deals have not been good for U.S. workers.

GMO Labeling Laws
Since 2012, U.S. groups opposed to the use of agricultural biotechnology have pursued ballot referendum measures to get various states to establish laws requiring mandatory labeling of processed food produced with GMO ingredients. All of the ballot measures contested to date – in California, Washington, and Oregon – have failed after vigorous and costly campaigns waged by both sides of the issue. The state legislatures of Maine and Connecticut have passed laws establishing such requirements, but those laws only take effect if a majority of neighboring states enact similar laws. In 2014, the state of Vermont adopted a law requiring GMO labeling of food that is due to take effect on July 1, 2016, and does not condition those requirements on neighboring states taking similar action. Legal efforts by food processing companies to force Vermont to delay implementation through a preliminary injunction were denied at the U.S. District Court level in April 2015, but the underlying lawsuit to invalidate the Vermont law is going forward.

Pro-biotech groups are seeking to short-circuit the array of state/local laws and referendum efforts related to GMO crops through Congressional action. Congressman Mike Pompeo (R-KS) has introduced legislation that would establish federal rules for voluntary GMO labeling and pre-empt any existing or future state or local measures that require GMO labeling or ban the cultivation of such crops. His bill, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (HR.1599), was introduced in March 2015 and currently has 68 co-sponsors, including 14 D's and 54 R's. The House Agriculture Committee reported HR.1599 out of Committee on July 14 on a voice vote. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has joint jurisdiction over the bill, but it appears they do not intend to hold a separate markup.

There is no companion bill to HR.1599 in the Senate yet, although Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) has indicated his intention to introduce such a bill. However, there were separate bills introduced in both the House (HR. 913) and the Senate (S. 511) that would both require mandatory GMO labeling of foods, with 14 and 48 co-sponsors respectively. An amendment offered by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) which would have allowed states to impose mandatory labeling was considered on the Senate floor during the 2013 portion of debate on the most recent farm bill and was defeated on a vote of 27-71.

During his first Presidential campaign in 2007, then-Senator Obama pledged to require mandatory labeling of GMO foods, but he has been largely silent on the issue during his Presidency. He did sign legislation providing a short-term extension of federal funding in 2013 that included a provision that allowed farmers to continue growing a GMO crop already sown in a field even if a court disallowed a USDA decision to permit such crops to be grown. Dubbed by critics the 'Monsanto Protection Act,' it expired on September 30, 2013.