The Senate farm bill marathon continues and is likely to end today. Forty-three amendments are left, including proposals to roll back the sugar program, which narrowly survived a repeal vote last week, and to place some restrictions on crop insurance. There’s still no word on when House Agriculture will release its draft bill or schedule votes, although the markup is still expected to occur next week ahead of the July 4 recess, now that it’s clear the Senate will advance its bill.
Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said while leaving the chamber floor late Tuesday that she was confident the bill would be finished today, reports CQ’s Niels Lesniewski. “There will be a number of voice votes,” she said. “I’m whipping it.” Pat Roberts of Kansas, the panel’s ranking Republican, said there were some “key amendments that could provide some problems for us. Challenges, not problems. We don’t have problems.”
Can Candy Makers Taste Victory? Advocates of price supports for sugar withstood a previous effort to gut the program, killing an amendment to phase it out 50-46 last week, but the close vote suggests that a narrower effort to restrict payments could succeed. Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, home of The Hershey Co., has proposed an amendment with several Democratic backers, including Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., that would roll back increases in price-support levels and requirements for government sugar purchases in the 2008 farm law (PL 110-246). “No program should be immune to changes. Our bipartisan sugar reform amendment is a moderate, common-sense way to modify an outdated program that keeps sugar prices artificially inflated and benefits wealthy sugar growers at the expense of taxpayers,” Shaheen said. The National Association of Manufacturers has made the issue a key vote.
Debate Over Crop Insurance Means Test Leads to Competing Study Proposals. Some of the most furious lobbying has focused on an effort by Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to raise subsidized crop insurance premiums for farmers with adjusted gross incomes of more than $750,000 a year. Opponents fear that it would result in rich farmers cutting back on coverage, leading to premium increases for other growers. Under Durbin’s and Coburn’s latest proposal, the premium increase would hinge on a USDA study, done in consultation with the Government Accountability Office, to determine whether the means test would significantly raise premiums for other farmers or increase the overall costs of the crop insurance program.
That doesn’t go far enough for farm interests who favor an alternative amendment proposed by John Thune, R-S.D., that would require USDA to consult with crop insurance companies, not the GAO. Under his proposal, the premium increase would not take effect if it causes any increase in overall premiums or administrative costs. “All we’re saying is that we need to look very carefully at what we do with regard to crop insurance,” Thune said.
Conservation Compliance: The South’s Revenge? One thing seems clear after Tuesday’s round of votes: This bill will likely depart the Senate will little Southern support. It was bad enough for Southerners that Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Kent Conrad, D-N.D., had to drop their proposal for a counter-cyclical payment program that rice and peanut producers dearly wanted. Then lawmakers agreed by voice vote Tuesday to repeal a catfish inspection program that Southerners got included in the 2008 farm bill at the behest of the region’s fish farmers. The chamber also approved, 75-24, an amendment by Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that caps at $75,000 a year the amount of marketing loan gains that any one farmer can receive. The biggest impact of that would likely fall on Southern farm cooperatives if market prices fall below the loan rates that trigger payments. The cap means little for growers of corn, soybeans and other northern crops, considering market prices are running far above the loan rates. Meanwhile, Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., was rebuffed in efforts to expand the bill’s cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Chambliss’ pending proposal to require crop insurance policyholders to comply with soil conservation requirements has led to speculation that it’s a way for Southerners to take revenge on Midwest senators who shaped the bill. “We’ll find out if it’s merely a statement,” a lobbyist for a major Midwest commodity said of the Chambliss proposal. Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said late Tuesday that the conservation compliance vote appeared “quite close” with a number of senators still undecided. In a letter (pdf) to senators, NSAC, the National Farmers Union, American Farmland Trust and the Soil and Water Conservation Society said the Chambliss amendment would ensure “taxpayer funds are not rewarding agricultural producers who are draining wetlands or farming highly erodible land without adequate conservation measures.” Commodity groups and banking interests have been lobbying against imposing any new restrictions on crop insurance.
EPA Budget, Staff Targeted by Appropriators. GOP appropriators are looking to use spending cuts rather than policy riders this year to rein in that agency. A fiscal 2013 spending bill that a House Appropriations subcommittee marks up today would reduce EPA funding to its lowest level in 15 years, reports CQ’s Lauren Gardner. The $28 billion Interior-Environment appropriations bill slated to be marked up in subcommittee Wednesday would provide $7 billion for the EPA, a 17 percent cut that would push funding for the agency below fiscal 1998 levels. The bill would cut EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s office budget by more than 30 percent, reduce funding for the congressional affairs office by half and cap agency personnel at the lowest level since 1992.
Appropriators Preserve Food Aid Cuts. Democrats have failed so far to reverse cuts to food aid in the House’s fiscal 2013 spending bill for USDA, FDA and the CFTC, reports CQ’s Matt Fuller. On Tuesday, House Appropriations rejected, 26-20, a Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., amendment that would have provided an additional $260 million in funding for Food for Peace. Under the bill, Food for Peace would get $1.15 billion, a $316 million reduction from current funding and about $250 million below the president’s request. DeLauro said the cut would result in feeding 6.6 million fewer people worldwide.
In an unusual twist of timing, the committee approved by voice vote a $250,000 income limit for recipients of farm subsidies. But if the committee was trying to send a message to House Agriculture as it writes its farm bill, the Senate only muddied the issue a few hours later, voting 84-15 to kill the same proposal by Rand Paul, R-Ky. The Senate farm bill sets a limit of $750,000 in adjusted gross income. The committee also added, by voice vote, provisions that would allow WIC recipients to buy potatoes and block USDA from inspecting the slaughter of horses.
Republicans fought off attempts to boost CFTC’s funding, arguing at one point that the commission’s existing employees are overpaid. Georgia Republican Jack Kingston, chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, said 82 percent of CFTC employees have six-figure salaries. “There is not a culture of thrift at the CFTC,” Kingston said. The GOP’s main reason for going after CFTC’s budget is to keep a tight leash on the agency’s regulatory activity under Dodd-Frank.
Russia Trade Deal Challenged in Senate Over Human Rights, Meat Industry Concerns. Senate Republicans are threatening to walk away from a bill sanctioning human rights violators in Russia after the measure’s authors suggested several adjustments to address Obama administration concerns. That, in turn, could scuttle the fragile coalition that Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., has built in support of separate legislation to permanently normalize trade relations between Washington and Moscow, reports CQ’s Emily Cadei.
John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the three original cosponsors of Baucus’ trade bill (S 3285), made clear Tuesday that his support for that legislation is conditioned on the accompanying passage of a tough measure going after Russian human rights abusers. Normalizing trade relations is necessary for U.S. business interests to benefit from Russia’s entry this summer into the World Trade Organization. Baucus wants to pass his bill lifting Jackson-Vanik trade restrictions on Russia before then, but McCain complains that the administration is trying to water down the human rights measure in hopes of avoiding a diplomatic standoff with Moscow.
Meanwhile, farm-state senators are pushing the White House to ensure that Russia brings its safety standards for meat and poultry imports in line with WTO rules. “Judging by Russia’s past and current practices,” the 34 senators wrote, (pdf) “we lack confidence that Russia will all of a sudden treat U.S. pork and poultry products equitably upon entry into the WTO.” The senators want Russia pressured to change its standards before its WTO entry.
Canada Joining TPP Talks, But Democrat Issues Warning on Japan. First Mexico, and now Canada has been added to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks. Still missing is Japan, and a senior Democrat is cautioning the Obama administration against adding that nation without new concessions, reports CQ’s Joseph J. Schatz. With Mexico and Canada on board, a prospective agreement would include the weight of all of North America in setting trade standards with the Asian TPP nations. Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, is a critic of NAFTA’s impact on labor and environmental standards and says the TPP talks will “give us the opportunity to correct the mistakes of NAFTA.” But Levin, a strong ally of the U.S. automakers that drive his state’s economy, says Japan is in a “wholly separate category” from Canada and Mexico. The Japanese government hasn’t decided whether to try to enter the talks yet amid opposition from its domestic farm lobby.
RAND Questions Pentagon Biofuels: A new report from the RAND Corp. raises questions about the role of biofuels in U.S. national security, Defense Executive Briefing editor John Donnelly tells me. One of the findings is that renewable fuels will not go down appreciably in price anytime soon — and while Pentagon fuel purchases are enormous, they are not big enough to affect petroleum prices. The study could have a big effect on an authorization debate over how much the Defense Department should invest in biofuels.
Quotable: “There will be no changes or it doesn’t happen.” — McCain, on the Russia human rights bill.