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House Appropriations bill debate reveals Republican, Democrat differences'

The House Appropriations Committee’s approval of the fiscal year 2014 Agriculture appropriations bill last week included key amendments on white potatoes and horse slaughter, but also revealed deep philosophical and financial differences between its Republican and Democratic members.

The bill totals $19.5 billion in discretionary funding, which is $1.3 billion below the fiscal year 2013 enacted level and approximately equal to the current level caused by automatic sequestration spending cuts.

This total is $516 million below the president’s request for these programs.

The House bill is substantially below that of the bill approved by the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, which approved $20.93 bill in discretionary spending. (See preceeding story.)

The bill was approved by voice vote. House Appropriations Committee ranking member Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., praised the bill for not including what she called “the Monsanto Protection Act,” a measure in the fiscal year 2013 Agriculture appropriations bill that allows the continuing planting and harvesting of genetically modified seed even if the seed is subject to a court procedure.

That measure, which has been controversial, expires September 30.

The lengthy markup session was dominated by amendments that seemed designed more to make a statement than to deal with practical matters or reach compromises.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho
Perhaps the most significant addition to the bill was an amendment sponsored by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, to require the Agriculture Department to allow beneficiaries of the Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) to buy white potatoes through the program. The amendment passed by voice vote.

Simpson noted that the provision would not allow WIC beneficiaries to buy potato chips or other items of questionable nutrition. He also cited a study showing that WIC beneficiaries eat fewer potatoes than the national average.

He also noted that, while USDA does not allow WIC beneficiaries to buy white potatoes in regular stores, it does allow them to buy potatoes at farmers’ markets.

A USDA spokeswoman confirmed that “the core WIC package is based on Institutes of Medicine recommendations, which stated that the average American diet already consists of enough white potatoes, so the core WIC program didn't need to provide them.”

But the spokeswoman added that the 1992 legislation that established the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program to allow participants to use coupons to purchase fresh, unprepared, locally-grown fruits and vegetables through farmers markets and roadside stands does not exclude white potatoes.

“The same holds true for fresh herbs used primarily as flavoring ingredients, which are also not included in the core WIC package, but can be purchased at farmers markets,” the spokeswoman added.

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif.

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif.
Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., the subcommittee ranking member, said, “As the only member of this committee who looks like a potato,” he wanted the other committee members to know that passing this amendment would mean the first time Congress has told managers of the WIC program what mothers should buy.

“I love Idaho and I love you, but I don’t love this amendment,” he told Simpson.

Rep. Rosa De Lauro, D-Conn., also said she was opposed because the WIC program food allowance should be based “on sound science.” White potatoes are the most “widely consumed vegetable” in the United States, De Lauro said, and studies show that WIC participants already eat them.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said she was “very uncomfortable opposing an Institutes of Medicine report,” but that she would support Simpson’s amendment.

“I apologize for speaking in the potato war. I am glad this is not a battle between Idaho and Maine potatoes,” she said.

The scientific reports that discourage consumption of white potatoes are “a little bit skewed,” Pingree said. She also noted that she has a conflict of interest because her own farm produces potatoes that are sold at a farmers’ market. By voting for this amendment, Pingree said, she is opening the market to local grocers.

Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va.

Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va.
The committee also approved an amendment sponsored by Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., that prohibits funding for inspections of horse slaughter facilities in the U.S. The amendment was adopted on a voice vote.

If it becomes law, the amendment would have the effect of stopping USDA’s plans to restart inspections of horse slaughter plants. Congress banned inspections at horse slaughter facilities in 2006, but lifted the ban in the fiscal year 2010 Agriculture appropriations bill.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said recently that USDA was making plans to restart the inspections because the department needs to follow the law, but urged Congress to find another solution to the issue of horse slaughter.

A USDA spokesperson told The Hagstrom Report that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is reviewing the applications, but that no grants of inspection will be issued “until an establishment is able to produce a safe product in accordance with the Federal Meat Inspection Act.”

The committee also adopted:

An amendment offered by Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., that prohibits funding for the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) to implement certain regulations that Womack said adversely impact livestock producers. The amendment was adopted on a vote of 29-17. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio vigorously opposed the amendment.

An amendment offered by Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., that limits funding for certain Agriculture Department salaries unless the error rates for child nutrition programs are reduced. The amendment was adopted on a vote of 23-20.
Farr opposed the amendment, noting that the school lunch program is not under the jurisdiction of the Agriculture committees. Farr said the school lunch programs are already “micromanaged” and that the work of making sure that error rates for child nutrition programs must be handled in the schools, not at USDA.

An amendment offered by Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, that prohibits funding in the bill from going to states unless their SNAP and WIC participants are deemed eligible in compliance with current law. The amendment was adopted on a vote of 27-21.

Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan.

Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan.
Democrats also said the bill underfunds the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The committee passed an amendment sponsored by Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., to require the CFTC and the Securities and Exchange Commission to jointly issue regulations relating to the regulation of derivatives that take place with U.S. persons doing business overseas, as opposed to multiple or separate standards. The amendment was adopted on a vote of 31-17.

Farr and Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., both said the amendment would slow down and water down CFTC rule writing.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio
Kaptur called the amendment “fascinating.”

She noted that the activities of derivatives traders had done “extraordinary damage to the American people and to people around the world” and that the amendment was being offered because “greed is one of the ugliest aspects of human existence.”

“Some people would say that derivatives traders ‘own’ members of Congress. I wouldn’t say it, but I sure think it,” Kaptur added.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.
The committee also approved an amendment offered by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., to set up a bipartisan commission to look at public-private partnership to deal with the issue of hunger.

Wolf noted that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said that 30 to 40 percent of food is wasted and that the pope has said wasting food is stealing from the poor. The problem of hunger might be solved, Wolf said, if corporations and other institutions held food drives.

Farr said he supported the amendment but said he found it “ironic” that it was included in a bill that cuts food assistance.