BOTH the House and Senate released draft plans last week that give the agriculture committees guidance on what will be expected from them in terms of spending.
The plans seem more like political posturing than putting action behind doing anything meaningful.
The big news really lies in the debate over the continuing resolution (CR) bill that will keep the government running past March 27 and potentially could provide some flexibility on implementing sequestration.
The House passed its six-month stopgap spending bill March 6, under which the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other departments face line-item cuts of 5-9% as a result of sequestration.
Senate Democrats are working on their own package that will significantly alter the House legislation. The Senate's package would give the Obama Administration greater flexibility to carry out the sequester cuts and would include additional appropriation bills for the departments of commerce, justice, agriculture and homeland security.
Specifically, the bill would provide $20.5 billion in fiscal 2013 for agriculture, rural development, the Food & Drug Administration and related agencies. For USDA, it would provide $1.4 billion for foreign food assistance, $1.2 billion for the National Institute on Food & Agriculture, nearly $1.1 billion for the Agricultural Research Service, $801 million for the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service and $824 million for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Many are hoping that the sequester will be flexible on how to avoid fallouts, such as the food inspector furloughs.
During a House Agriculture Committee hearing, USDA undersecretary of food safety Elisabeth Hagen said the proposed plan includes 11 furlough days -- no more than one day a week and no more than two days per pay period -- from July to September.
In an interview last week, Rep. Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) was asked whether there was a "make-it-hurt agenda being put in place" regarding sequestration, to which he replied, "Oh, I think there is, but it's not being done by (Agriculture Secretary) Tom Vilsack."
The House CR also included a provision that would rescind some provisions of the Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) regulations that provide transparency, disclosure and capital investment protections for poultry farmers in their contract relationship with poultry companies.
Last year, the House agriculture appropriations bill included language that prevented GIPSA from issuing a final rule defining injury to competition and from finalizing a rule on the contractual growout structure of the chicken industry.
The National Chicken Council supports the language passed last year, which is now in the CR. However, groups like the National Farmers Union (NFU) strongly oppose the language, saying it weakens the Packers & Stockyards Act, which is designed to ensure that farmers and ranchers have access to fair prices that are not manipulated by packers and processors.
"If the Senate includes this rider in the continuing resolution, poultry farmers, who have suffered the most from the lack of competitive markets, will be hurt even more," NFU president Roger Johnson said. "Pork and beef producers should be very concerned that their markets are going to be targeted next."