HOUSE PANEL VOTES TO SEND FARM BILL TO FLOOR

Jul 12 2012
by: Amanda Peterka
from E&E Daily

The House Agriculture Committee early this morning voted 35-11 to move its version of the farm bill to the House floor after a markup that stretched 15 hours and included debate on more than 100 amendments.
The bill agreed to by the committee at about 12:55 a.m. has no mandatory funding in its energy title after Rep. Leonard Boswell (R-Iowa) pulled an amendment that would have provided funding for the bill’s major energy programs. However, committee leaders agreed to work with Boswell on putting mandatory funding into the bill as it moves forward.
Overall, the nearly trillion-dollar bill cuts direct spending by about $35 billion, with the bulk of reductions coming from the national food stamp program. The bill eliminates direct payments to farmers but still provides incentives through a new revenue insurance program and subsidies based on guaranteed prices.
The conservation title, which provides farmers with funding and technical assistance to make environmental improvements, would receive a $6.1 billion cut.
“It is a tough farm bill, but a fair one,” Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) said at the beginning of the long markup. “We face huge deficits and the heavy burden of debt.”
The bill will now be favorably reported as amended to the House floor, but its future is far from certain. Lawmakers face a Sept. 30 deadline to complete the bill, but House leaders have not made it a priority.
Last month, the Senate passed a $970 billion farm bill that still cuts $23 billion from direct spending. While the House and Senate bills are similar, the House bill makes steeper cuts in nutrition assistance and includes policy differences in commodity subsidies that will likely be worked out in conference committee.
The Senate bill includes $800 million over the next five years in mandatory funding for rural energy programs that help landowners make energy efficiency improvements, carry out renewable energy projects and plant biofuel crops. Before the House markup yesterday, rural energy groups made pleas for Agriculture Committee members to also include mandatory funding in their bill.
Amendments to the bill
The committee accepted only one amendment to its energy title: a provision to allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prioritize biofuel crops projects that are already begun in order to not leave projects half-completed. The amendment was offered by Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) for Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) and approved by voice vote.
Noem withdrew a separate amendment that would allow USDA to continue funding the installation of blender pumps at gas stations to provide ethanol. She, ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) supported the measure. It appears that Noem will continue to work with leaders on the measure as the farm bill moves forward.
The committee made no changes to the conservation title, which finds savings by consolidating 23 programs to 13 — similar to the Senate-passed version of the bill.
Late in the night, Reps. Walz and Noem withdrew an amendment that would limit crop insurance subsidies for newly tilled land on a national basis, identical to a provision in the Senate-passed bill. While the House draft includes such a provision, it limits it to the Prairie Pothole region in the upper Midwest.
In introducing the amendment, Walz said that the sod-saver provision, as the measure is known, would help preserve critical habitat and save money. Limiting the program to only one region, he said, would essentially mean setting one set of rules for farmers and landowners in one state and another set of rules for those in another.
He noted that the National Audubon Society, the National Catholic Rural Life Network and the National Rifle Association supported the amendment, which Walz and Noem introduced earlier this year on its own as the “Protect Our Prairies Act.”
“I have guns, Gods and greens all behind this one,” Walz said.
But neither Texans nor Oklahomans were behind it. Republican Chairman Lucas of Oklahoma and Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas harshly criticized the provision, saying it would set another layer of regulations on farmers.
Walz withdrew the amendment after Lucas amended it by specifically excluding Texas and Oklahoma.
The committee approved a handful of amendments by voice vote to exempt certain projects from federal environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act.
One would allow the Forest Service to exclude everyday maintenance activities such as repairing power lines, while another would increase the number of acres allowed for exclusions in pine beetle mitigation projects from 1,000 to 10,000.
An amendment by Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) that would exclude privately funded projects undertaken by rural electric cooperatives from federal environmental reviews also passed by voice vote.
Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) attempted to introduce a provision that would create a pilot program in which railroad lands in Oregon and California currently under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management would be transferred to the Forest Service. Half that land would be set aside in trusts and run under state standards, while the other half would be set aside for old growth. Both halves would be able to exchange lands for landscape-based management.
Schrader pitched the idea as a way to save forests in Oregon from threats including fire and pest infestations. But the committee voted to table the amendment after Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said the program raises jurisdictional issues by taking land out of the Bureau of Land Management’s supervision.
Schrader later withdrew an amendment that would authorize USDA’s wildlife services to provide cracker shells to farmers to use against geese that are wreaking havoc on fields.
In one of the last votes of the night, the Agriculture Committee struck down by a 20-25 vote an attempt by Rep. Vicki Hartzler (R-Mo.) to repeal a 2008 provision that transferred catfish inspections from the Food and Drug Administration to USDA. Critics of the move charge that the inspection program has been expensive and slow to get off the ground under USDA’s jurisdiction, bogged down by disputes over the definition of “catfish.”
Southern representatives objected to the repeal, saying the transfer creates a level playing field between domestic and foreign catfish. USDA has a more stringent inspection process than FDA, they said, and the transfer prevents foreign catfish containing harmful antibiotics from entering the U.S. market.
Ranking member Peterson also objected to the provision, which the Senate added to its farm bill last month.
“It was good policy then. It’s good policy now. And we should stick with it,” he said.
Other amendments:
Committee members struck down an amendment by Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) that would fund a program that has helped farmers in California’s Central Valley replace diesel engines in their tractors with newer, more efficient ones.
The committee struck down another amendment by Costa that would fund a program that helps farmers with the costs associated with certifying products as organic. The House farm bill would repeal the program.
The committee approved an amendment by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) that directs the secretary of Agriculture to take action to increase protection for farmers in the areas flooded last year by the Missouri River and to increase the river’s channel capacity between reservoirs.
The committee approved another amendment by King that prohibits states from banning agricultural goods from other states that are produced under different production methods.
The committee adopted an amendment by Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) that would direct USDA to level the crop insurance playing field for organic crops..

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