Senate Ag Funding Bill


By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday approved a fiscal year 2017 Agriculture appropriations bill that would cost a total of $147.7 billion in discretionary and mandatory funding, which is $21.7 billion below President Barack Obama's budget request but still $7.1 billion above the fiscal year 2016 enacted level.

The discretionary funding in the bill totals $21.25 billion, which is $250 million below the FY2016 enacted level. Mandatory funding in the bill totals $126.5 billion.

The bill covers the Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration and the Farm Credit Administration.

The vote was by voice, and there were no amendments at the markup. The full Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to take up the bill on Thursday.

After criticizing the House bill for cuts to conservation, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition praised the subcommittee for keeping the funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) intact. Still, the bill does make cuts to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. The coalition also noted the Senate bill increased funding for research in different areas, including a $2.3 million boost for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE) and $25 million for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI).

The bill provides USDA with $1.5 million for an overseas post in Cuba. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said repeatedly that USDA needs a post in Cuba in order to promote U.S. agricultural products and answer Cuban government officials' questions about them. The House bill does not include funds for such a post.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kan., did not mention the Cuba post during the markup, and a summary of the bill did not include any details about the post.

Moran said the manager's amendment could contain a directive to the Agriculture Department to make certain changes to the rule proposed to impose requirements on retailers that redeem benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP or food stamps.

Moran said he and other committee members don't believe that USDA should impose the proposed stiff requirements on the number of food products that stores must offer and the quantity of those foods that have to be kept in stock. USDA has also said that stores that generate a lot of revenue from selling hot foods should be kept out of the program, and Moran said that the impact of that portion of the rule is something that appropriators are examining.

Grocery stores in rural America and in the centers of cities are a matter of economic development, Moran said, and the committee wants to ensure their survival.

At the markup, Moran said, he expects Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to offer an amendment continuing a restriction on the commercialization of genetically modified salmon unless it is labeled.

Moran said that, even though members have been discussing a USDA rule requiring organic poultry to have free access to the outdoors with space specifications, it is unlikely there will be an amendment on that issue because it is a fight within the organic industry.

Moran said there is no amendment to restrict the Agriculture Department's Grain Inspection and Packers and Stockyards Administration's enforcement of a livestock and poultry rule. The House version continues to block USDA from implementing that rule.

During the meeting, Moran emphasized that the bill creates incentives for USDA to help military veterans get into agriculture, increases funding for agriculture research and the FDA's Food Safety Modernization Act implementation.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., ranking member on the subcommittee, said he was happy to support the bill and considered it a bipartisan collaboration.

The Senate Appropriations Committee Republicans and Democrats each released key points and highlights of the bill with slightly different numbers.