House subcommittee advances ag spending bill

Increased funding for avian flu support and GIPSA rider left out.

The House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.), marked up and approved by voice vote its version of the FY 2016 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies appropriations bill Thursday.

The bill would provide $20.7 billion in discretionary spending, which would represent a 1% reduction from the FY 2015 enacted level, and it is $1.1 billion less than the Administration’s budget request. The overall bill totals $143.9 billion.

The bill includes a provision that would prohibit USDA from restricting premium assistance related to conservation compliance for crop insurance eligibility for the 2016 reinsurance year. “The intended purpose of the language is not to unravel conservation compliance requirements, but rather to allow for additional time for implementation in order to address concerns posed by producers. If enacted, implementation would continue to move forward, but producers would not be penalized for non-compliance during this first year,” the National Association of Wheat Growers said in a newsletter.

The bill provides $2.7 billion for agriculture research programs, including the Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The legislation includes $871 million – $15 million above the President’s budget request and approximately the same as the fiscal year 2015 enacted level – for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The increase will help address harmful outbreaks of citrus greening and highly pathogenic avian influenza, the subcommittee said.   

The bill also includes a policy provision delaying the implementation of a new menu labeling regulation by a year, to give restaurants, local supermarkets, grocery stores, and similar retail establishments adequate time to comply with the law.

The legislation includes $1 billion for food safety and inspection programs – approximately the same as the 2015 enacted level. The funding provided will maintain more than 8,000 frontline inspection personnel for meat, poultry, and egg products at more than 6,400 facilities across the country. 

The bill also carries riders to prevent the USDA from reducing the amount of salt permitted in school meals and to allow an exemption for schools that say it is too expensive to use more whole wheat products in their meals or that they cannot find an adequate supply of the materials. Similar provisions were part of the current funding bill.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition opposed the inclusion of what it called an “end run around farm program payment limitations” that was inserted into the bill. The measure, with a price tag of over $50 million, would bring back marketing loan commodity certificates, a feature of farm programs that ended in 2009.

“The kicker is it would also direct USDA to apply farm law as it existed in 2008, when marketing loan gains were not subject to payment limits, rather than the law as it exists post-2014 Farm Bill that makes all forms of payments and gains subject to the payment limit,” explained Ferd Hoefner, policy director at NSAC. Currently the payments should be subject to the $125,000 ($250,000 for married couples) payment limits.

Conservation did see a hit as the Conservation Stewardship Program was cut by 2.6 million acres (26%) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program cut by $300 million (18%).

The “GIPSA” rider, which has been included in previous years’ bill, was not in this year’s version. The Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration was tasked in the 2008 Farm bill to write and implement rules to prevent anti-competitive practices in the livestock industry. Throughout the appropriations process the agency has been prevented from finalizing those rules.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has not yet acted on its own version of the FY 2016 Agriculture Appropriations bill, but consideration could occur soon. Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) said the House appropriations bill “shortchanges” American agriculture by reopening the farm bill to additional cuts.

“This bill undoes important reforms that help save tax dollars, like limiting farm payments and connecting better conservation practices to crop insurance, while making cuts that only weaken our economy,” Stabenow said.

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