LEGISLATORS attempted to get back to regular order after approving omnibus appropriations legislation that would implement last month's budget agreement and fund the government for the remainder of fiscal 2014.
The package of 12 spending bills includes discretionary funding of $20.9 billion for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food & Drug Administration, an increase of $350 million over 2013 levels after the sequester.
The bill was easily approved in the House last Wednesday by a vote of 359-67. The Senate was expected to approve the bill and send it to the President before the latest three-day continuing resolution expired Jan. 18.
The legislation specifically funds USDA's Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service at $821.7 million, equal to the fiscal 2013 enacted level. It also includes more than $1 billion for the Food Safety & Inspection Service, $19 million below the fiscal 2013 enacted level.
Also, the bill provides $161.2 million for the National Agricultural Statistics Service and directs the agency to resume previously suspended reports and begin compiling several current industrial reports formerly conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The bill provides $2.6 billion for agricultural research programs, including the Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute of Food & Agriculture.
The Agriculture & Food Research Initiative - USDA's largest competitive grants research program — receives $316 million, which represents a 15% increase over fiscal 2013 levels.
The bill provides $22.7 million for the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) competitive grant research program — the highest funding level since the program was created in the late 1980s. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) welcomed the boost, which is 18% greater than the highest level for the program.
The bill accepts the President's fiscal 2014 budget proposal to consolidate three functions of the SARE program — research, extension and professional development and matching grants — into one line item but makes clear in report language that all three components should continue to be funded in the future as they have been in previous years.
The bill provides $826 million for the Natural Resources Conservation Service — virtually the same as the fiscal 2013 enacted level — to help farmers, ranchers and private forest landowners conserve and protect their land.
The new appropriations bill does not include a provision to spend any potential proceeds of the conservation user fee included as part of the congressional budget deal reached in December.
NSAC said it "is opposed to the imposition of that tax on farmers to sign up for voluntary conservation efforts and is glad to see the appropriators turn down the chance to spend that potential new revenue."
The conservation section calls for no funding cuts — known as changes in mandatory program spending (CHIMPS) — to the Conservation Stewardship Program, Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, Farmland Protection Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, Agricultural Management Assistance program, or Wetlands Reserve Program. A proposed cut in the House agricultural appropriations bill would have limited the fiscal 2014 wetlands program enrollment to 71,104 acres, a reduction of more than 193,000 acres.
"While the omnibus mostly abstains from making CHIMPS, the bill does limit funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to $1.35 billion from its farm bill funding level of $1.75 billion," NASC reported. "Whether or not the pending five-year farm bill will attempt to overcome that limitation for (fiscal) 2014 remains to be seen."
The legislation provides $1.5 billion for the Farm Service Agency, which is equal to the fiscal 2013 enacted level. This funding will support the various farm, conservation, loan and emergency programs for American farmers and ranchers, including loan authorizations in excess of $5.5 billion for farm ownership, farm operation, conservation and emergency loans.
Included in the bill is $215 million for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which is $100 million below the President's budget request.
The bill does not reflect the President's budget request to move the Food for Peace grants to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The legislation contains $1.47 billion for the grants, also known as the P.L. 480 Title II program, which donates U.S. agricultural commodities and fortified foods to alleviate hunger during emergencies and to improve nutrition and food security of poor, malnourished populations. This is $32 million above the fiscal 2013 enacted level.
Crispian Kirk, chair of the Alliance for Global Food Security and president and chief operating officer of Opportunities Industrialization Centers International, urged the Obama Administration and Congress to keep Food for Peace as the core food aid program, "giving greater support to development-focused food aid within that account and providing flexibility to buy foods locally or regionally for emergencies under the International Disaster Assistance account."
In addition, the legislation provides $185.1 million for the McGovern-Dole international food aid program that uses donated U.S. commodities to support education, child development and food security.