AGRICULTURE:

Conservation funding intact as panel approves spending bill

A House spending panel yesterday approved a $23 billion Agriculture appropriations bill that keeps intact major spending boosts for energy and conservation that lawmakers set two years ago, rejecting significant cuts the White House proposed.

The House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee unanimously approved the bill last night after hours of debate over Republican amendments. The panel rejected all of those amendments, including proposals that would have cut spending across the board, eliminated the Conservation Stewardship Program and tied the hands of agencies that could work on oil-spill pollution reporting requirements for dairy farmers.

Democratic leaders said the future of the spending bill is unclear. Delayed by gridlock over the budget, lawmakers are behind schedule on the annual appropriations measures. The Agriculture spending bill has usually cleared the subcommittee, full committee and House floor at this point in the year.

Subcommittee markups are generally slow affairs, with amendments held to full committee. But Republicans piled their proposed amendments on the bill yesterday, saying it may be their last opportunity to have their voices heard.

"We have every evidence that we won't have a markup in committee and will have a closed rule on the floor. That is most discouraging to me," said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), ranking member of the full committee.

But Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) insisted he intends to move forward with full consideration of as many of the bills as possible -- while still acknowledging the process may face hurdles.

"I don't know where that evidence exists except in the gentleman's imagination," Obey said. "I expect to bring this bill to the committee. How many bills we bring to committee depends on what cooperation we get from the minority and depends on if the Senate can proceed with more than a two-car funeral."

Obey has declared the Homeland Security spending measure will be the first in committee. Agriculture Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said after the markup yesterday that she hopes the Agriculture spending bill can follow soon thereafter, given that it has frequently moved early with bipartisan support in prior years.

"We have a good history -- we have gone to subcommittee, full committee, passed a bill off the floor and had the president sign it -- that happened in the past with ag," DeLauro told reporters. "So, I'm optimistic."

If the spending bills do not move individually before the end of the fiscal year, lawmakers would turn to a continuing resolution to fund government operations at current spending levels or lump all the remaining spending measures in one omnibus package.

Cuts, increases

In total, the Agriculture Subcommittee's bill has $261 million for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission -- a 55 percent increase over current levels, consistent with the administration's request.

The panel also allotted more than $1 billion in discretionary funding for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the agency that oversees most farmland conservation programs. That sum is a $3 million boost over current spending levels and nearly $48 million more than the administration requested.

The bill would cut some funding for buildings and facilities, food assistance training, computer programs and a long-stalled voluntary national animal identification program. But the subcommittee turned away from nearly $1 billion in conservation cuts the Obama administration had proposed for conservation programs.

Agriculture and environmental groups had fought for funding boosts for conservation programs in the 2008 farm bill, which set five years of mandatory spending that is not supposed to be subject to the appropriations program.

But the Obama administration proposed cuts to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Stewardship Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, Grasslands Reserve Program, Farmland Protection Program and Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program.

The programs pay farmers to conserve wetlands, wildlife habitat and farmland at risk from development and offer incentives to make environmental improvements on their operations.

The appropriations bill keeps all the funding intact with the exception of relatively small cuts to EQIP and a dam rehabilitation program, according to DeLauro. She said the bill would cut $270 million from the EQIP baseline for next year.

The program would still receive more than $1 billion and see a boost above current funding levels.

"We tried to be very careful, and the authorizing committee knows that," DeLauro told reporters after the markup.

Attempt to eliminate CSP

Despite the underlying bill's support for conservation, several Republicans made an attempt during the markup to eliminate funding altogether for one conservation program.

An amendment from Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.) would have blocked all funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program -- nearly $1 billion over five years. The mandatory farm bill program rewards farmers who exhibit the highest level of environmental stewardship.

Alexander eventually withdrew the amendment, but his attempt indicates there could be trouble ahead for the program.

Subcommittee ranking member Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) argued for cutting funding in half for CSP, just as a starting point. And both Democrats and Republicans agreed the program has some problems -- even though no one on the committee could explain in detail what they were.

Alexander said the spending panel should zero out the program because of faulty payments that came to light at a hearing earlier this year with the Agriculture Inspector General Phyllis Fong.

At a hearing in April, Fong noted that USDA had conducted a targeted audit in one region where it suspected problems with administration of CSP. The agency found that half of the 75 contracts in that region went to participants who did not qualify for the program.

Altogether, there were nearly 4,400 contracts that year -- the rest of which were not investigated. But Alexander argued yesterday that "50 percent of the money is being stolen."

DeLauro noted that there are "significant pros and cons" of CSP and told Alexander she would like to work with him to address inequities without getting rid of the program altogether.

The recently revamped CSP pays farmers for having strong overall conservation plans, rather than focusing federal support on specific conservation practices or plots.

The Agriculture Department finalized rules earlier this month for the long-anticipated program, which was first created in the 2002 farm bill but never fully got off the ground. Lawmakers revised it in the 2008 farm bill. Fong's audit came before the new rules were finalized.

Obey objected to Alexander's amendment after no member of the panel could explain to him what the program does, the funding concerns or whether the administration had done anything to address them.

"I have an old-fashioned idea that if the Appropriations Committee is going to deal with a mandatory program, we ought to know that the hell we are doing," Obey said. "The right thing to do is to arm yourself with information, go to the Agriculture Committee and say, 'What the hell are you doing? What are you going to do to fix this?'"

Crying foul over spilt milk

The panel also debated a proposal from Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) that attempted to tie the hands of the Obama administration to keep them from moving forward with new pollution reporting regulations for dairy farms.

Emerson is concerned U.S. EPA could require dairy operations to have oil spill prevention plans in place for their milk, which EPA can classify as an "oil" because of its fat content.

EPA is working on regulations that require owners of certain large oil tanks with the potential to spill into nearby waters to develop plans to prevent or deal with such mishaps. The rule could affect large storage tanks of animal fat, grease and vegetable oil and has the potential to affect storage of milk that contains a certain percentage of animal fat, a non-petroleum oil.

"My dairy farmers will be out of business if they have to write the same oil spill prevention plan as BP," Emerson said. "This is scary to me, it is so ridiculous."

But it is not frightening many dairy groups, including the International Dairy Association, which has said it has assurances from EPA officials that milk will not be included in the regulations.

Emerson's amendment would have blocked USDA funding from supporting any work or consultation on the rule from the farm agency.

Democrats and Republicans on the panel agreed they do not necessarily want to see EPA move forward with such measures. But Democrats said that even if EPA were to consider such rules, Emerson's attempt to get at it through agriculture funding was not the right path.

"I want [USDA] involved up to their elbows to make sure this kind of stupid thing does not happen," Obey said. "I think the best way to make sure EPA does not go nuts is to make sure USDA is in the picture."

DeLauro said she would work with Emerson on the language going forward.

Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) has also introduced a bill that would exempt milk storage tanks from the EPA safety rule (E&E Daily, May 28).