School lunch, GIPSA top House ag spending debate

Full House Appropriations Committee markup makes few changes to bill.

During nearly four hours of debate Thursday morning, the full House Appropriations Committee marked up its agriculture spending bill previously approved by the agricultural subcommittee the week prior. Hot topics remained how to handle the school lunch program as well as the GIPSA rider and defunding horse inspections.

Members approved the bill 31-18, which provides $20.9 billion in discretionary funding, which is equal to the fiscal year 2014 enacted level. Including both discretionary and mandatory funding for various nutrition programs, the overall bill totals $142.5 billion.

Nearly half of the debate time was spent on an amendment proposed by the subcommittee ranking member Rep. Sam Farr (D., Calif.) that would strike the language allowing schools during the 2014-15 school year to receive a waiver after demonstrating six months of financial hardship.

Subcommittee chairman Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.) said the bill “only” allows schools more time to implement nutrition standards if needed, and doesn’t change standards or undermine the law, as many Democrats were claiming during the markup.

Farr’s amendment failed on a party line vote of 22-29 but Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said she would work with Aderholt in crafting a potential rewording to make sure it doesn’t establish permanent exiting from the program.

As Farr warned, the school lunch portion could create a “poison pen” when it comes to the full House for a vote that will “tie up the whole agriculture appropriations bill.”  His concerns focused on the “mandatory” and “shall” which is troublesome for the future success of the program.

Earlier in the week both First Lady Michelle Obama and Sec. of Agriculture Tom Vilsack were again making efforts to drum up support against the waiver system. Vilsack said the agency has already provided flexibility where needed and the waiver isn’t necessary.

Vilsack said one of the concerns of the waiver system is how to determine whether or not a school is operating at a loss due to the lunch standards. School districts’ school lunch budgets can also be assessed costs associated with administration costs, building fees, electricity, so if schools are raiding food budgets to pay for other resources, those schools could qualify for the waivers.

GIPSA

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Ohio) made two attempts to give back the ability of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to implement provisions from the 2008 Farm Bill regarding the law promulgated by the Grain Inspection and Packers and Stockyards Act agency that was supposed to help farmers remain competitive and offer protections regarding marketing agreements.

Her first amendment to completely strike the GIPSA rider language failed by a vote of 18-31. Rep. Steve Womack, (R., Ark.) said a major concern of GIPSA’s rule wouldn’t require farmers to prove they’ve been harmed by competition and open up companies to “frivolous lawsuits that would end marketing agreements as we know them.”

A more tailored amendment from Kaptur also failed by a vote of 20-29 which would have protected farmers from retaliatory actions if they spoke out to public officials, including their members of Congress, about the abusive practices, intimidation and coercion that regularly occurs in the industry.

The Senate’s version doesn’t include the GIPSA rider. A staff member from Kaptur’s office said the more tailored approach may provide some middle ground during negotiations with the Senate.

The House version of the farm bill had provisions that would have let livestock producers make their own marketing decisions and continued similar language provided in recent appropriations bill. However, the final farm bill did not limit USDA’s ability from implementing the rule.

Additional debate

Rep. Jack Kingston (R., Ga.) also received approval for his amendment that adds $155 million for the Agricultural Research Service Building and Facilities account for the purchase, repair, improvement, or construction of equipment and facilities, offset by a reduction in the Office of the Secretary and the Rural Water and Waste Disposal Account. This would be used to fund the Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory which the administration has been prioritized for funding for several years.

For the past three years the issue of whether to fund horse slaughter inspection facilities has been debated, but was dropped from the 2013 and 2014 funding bills. Last year language was retained in the omnibus bill package for 2014, and Rep. James Moran (D., Va.) won approval of an amendment to again de-fund inspections of horse slaughter facilities in the U.S. for FY15.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro won approval of her amendment that prohibits funds to purchase processed poultry from China for use in school lunch programs.

An amendment introduced by Rep. Tom Cole (R., Okla.) adds report language to encourage compliance with FDA's 2012 “Scientific Integrity" policy, and directs the FDA Commissioner to ensure agencies comply with the policy was adopted on a voice vote.

Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R., Miss.) also found approval for his amendment that adds report language encouraging FDA to accept certain types of clear, visible calorie displays on products served through vending machines.

An attempt to reform sugar policy also failed by a vote of 18-32.

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