AGRICULTURE:

Conservation a priority among 100-plus farm bill amendments chosen for debate

The House this week will vote on a bipartisan provision that would require farmers to comply with basic conservation requirements in order to receive subsidies for crop insurance.

If passed, the measure would represent a major win for rural conservation groups, which have identified it as their top priority in the reauthorization of the five-year farm bill. Reps. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) introduced the measure this week as an amendment to the bill.

"It is a common-sense policy, a good conservation initiative and widely agreed upon," Fortenberry said yesterday. "To me that makes a recipe for a good vote."

It was not immediately clear whether the amendment would receive a vote today or tomorrow. Late last night, the House Rules Committee decided to allow the amendment to receive debate on the floor.

House members filed a total of more than 220 amendments to the bill. Of those, the House Rules Committee sent 103 to debate on the floor with the goal of voting for final passage of the bill, H.R. 1947, this week. The huge number of amendments to get through, though, could mean debate spills into next week.

Under the Thompson-Fortenberry amendment, farmers growing crops on highly erodible lands and wetlands would be required to submit and comply with a conservation plan in exchange for receiving federally subsidized crop insurance. Conservation groups have called on Congress to support the provision as crop insurance has become the largest farm subsidy program, costing the federal government billions of dollars a year.

Conservation and crop insurance were tied between 1985 and 1996, when Congress decided to remove the requirements to encourage more farmers to join crop insurance rather than rely on ad hoc disaster payments.

Earlier this spring, national farm organizations agreed to support relinking the two in exchange for conservation groups agreeing to oppose any measures that would further limit crop insurance. The agreement has been hailed "historic" by the groups involved, given farm groups' opposition in recent years to tying strings to crop insurance subsidies (E&E Daily, May 7).

The version of the farm bill that passed the Senate last week in a bipartisan vote already contains conservation compliance. House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) has strongly opposed the idea, however, warning it would discourage farmers from joining the crop insurance program.

Fortenberry said yesterday that he has spoken to Lucas about the amendment and that the chairman agreed to allow the full House to decide the matter. The Nebraska congressman said that he felt optimistic about its chances going into the vote.

"I've spoken with Lucas directly about this ... about how important this is, it's consistent with past policy," Fortenberry said. "If you look at the range of support in the agriculture community, it is broad and wide."

National conservation groups that have identified the measure as their top priority in the farm bill also said they hoped it would be successful.

"This amendment would help provide farmers, taxpayers and natural resources alike a reasonable level of protection against practices that lead to the draining of wetlands and unnecessary increases in soil erosion and nutrient runoff," said Katie McKalip, a spokeswoman for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

The amendment is one of several that a national coalition of environmental, food safety and humanitarian groups are supporting this farm bill cycle. In a conference call yesterday, representativeness for the coalition also pushed for limiting crop insurance subsidies based on adjusted gross income, capping subsidies at $50,000 and increasing the transparency over crop insurance recipients.

While the Rules Committee panned most of the amendments relating to crop insurance, an amendment by Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) would put in place several of the reforms sought by the groups. A separate amendment by Fortenberry that was chosen for debate would cap all farmer subsidy payments limits at $250,000.

Conservation groups have also been pushing for provisions that would increase the cap for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, a farm bill conservation program, for funds that are dedicated specifically to protecting wildlife habitat. The House farm bill currently caps wildlife habitat funding at 5 percent of EQIP's total funding; an amendment by Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.) to increase that cap to 7.5 percent will receive debate.

Franz Matzner, associate director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that overall there was a "stark contrast" between the House and Senate bills when it comes to conservation. Both would consolidate conservation programs from 23 down to 13, but the House bill would cut nearly $7 billion, compared to less than $6 billion of cuts in the Senate version.

The House bill's proposed cut "is particularly galling and counterproductive when you consider the last year of extreme weather events that have driven drought and flood and fire across the country," Matzner said.

Food stamp provision a 'poison pill'?

The bill's energy title, which includes a suite of programs to help farmers and ranchers put in place renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, is also lacking any mandatory funding. An amendment that would have provided mandatory funding for energy programs was not among those chosen for debate.

House members are gearing for a lively two-day debate on the farm bill, particularly its proposed $20.5 billion cut to the national food stamps program, which makes up 80 percent of the farm bill's total spending. An amendment by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) restoring the cut is among the list of amendments that will receive votes on the floor.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) yesterday warned that Democrats would strongly oppose the bill without the restored funding. The bill, he said on the House floor, was "not worthy of the morals of this nation."

The White House on Monday issued a veto threat for the bill over its proposed cut to the national food stamps program.

"It is a shame, in a bill that ought to be bringing us together, for people who provide this country with food and fiber, and indeed provide a lot of the world with food and fiber, that we have put this almost-poison pill -- I don't know whether it's going to be a poison pill, but almost-poison pill -- in it," Hoyer said. "I regret that."

The bill is also opposed by conservative organizations, which are pushing for further reforms to commodity subsidies and the crop insurance program.

Two amendments targeting the bill's new proposed dairy price support program, which has been championed by Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), and the federal suite of sugar support programs are set to receive votes this week.

The sugar program is home to a controversial mechanism that gives the U.S. Agriculture Department the authority to purchase sugar and then sell it to U.S. ethanol producers. USDA is currently considering using the Feedstock Flexibility Program for the first time in its history to halt a slide in domestic sugar prices.

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who unsuccessfully attempted to limit the program last week in the agriculture appropriations bill (E&ENews PM, June 14), yesterday said that he is rallying support for the sugar amendment on the House floor. Dent, who sported a bright yellow button with the words "Sugar Reform Now," said that he believed opponents of the sugar programs were "making some progress."

"We just want to have more market-based sugar pricing," Dent said, adding, "We need this reform. It's right for the consumers. It's right for the taxpayers."

Other amendments that are set to receive votes include several forestry provisions:

  • An amendment by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) would waive National Environmental Policy Act requirements on national Forest Service lands for cleanup projects after disasters.
  • An amendment by Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) allows the Forest Service to delegate all types of projects to state foresters.
  • An amendment by Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) would provide the Forest Service with a large air tanker and an aerial asset lease program to assist with fighting wildfires. An amendment by fellow Colorado Rep. Jared Polis (D) would allow the Forest Service to streamline forest management decisions to treat insect infestations on public lands in part to reduce the fuel loads that contribute to wildfires.
  • An amendment by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) seeks to boost participation in forest stewardship by addressing fire liability issues.
  • An amendment by Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) would allow third-party nongovernmental entities to hold conservation easements within the Forest Legacy Program.

Others chosen to receive debate include:

  • An amendment by Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) would require the secretary of Agriculture to conduct a study on the economic impacts of listing the lesser prairie chicken under the Endangered Species Act.
  • An amendment by Rep. William Enyart (D-Ill.) would establish a National Drought Council and a National Drought Policy Action Plan to streamline federal responses to droughts.
  • An amendment by Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) would exempt small farms and ranches from national oil spill regulations. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is attempting to tie similar language onto bills in the Senate.
  • An amendment by Rep. Ben Ray Luj├ín (D-N.M.) would allows small-scale Hispanic irrigators to be eligible for funding under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, through which USDA assists farmers with environmental improvements on their lands.
  • An amendment by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) would require that 20 percent of acres enrolled by farmers in the Conservation Reserve Program, though which USDA pays farmers to idle their lands for conservation reasons, would be targeted toward special initiatives. Another by Blumenauer would reform the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
  • An amendment by Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) would prohibit producers who grow corn for ethanol production from receiving farm subsidies. A separate amendment by Rep. Thomas Marino (R-Pa.) would eliminate the Biodiesel Fuel Education Program, an initiative used throughout the biodiesel industry to promote awareness of its product.
  • An amendment by Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) would direct USDA to report to Congress on the economic implications of fraud and mislabeling in wild and farmed seafood.
  • An amendment by Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) would create a pilot program to use Rural Utility Service funds to address nitrate contamination of drinking water in rural communities with a population of fewer than 10,000 residents.
  • An amendment by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) would require USDA to submit an annual report on invasive species in the United States.
  • An amendment by Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) would require USDA to give priority to areas seeking to recover from flooding associated with catastrophic storms when doling out Emergency Watershed Protection funding.
  • An amendment by Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) would allow renewable chemicals and biobased product manufacturing to qualify for funding under the Biorefinery Assistance Program. A coalition of rural energy groups has advocated for this provision. An amendment by Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) would make fermentable sugar biomass crops eligible for payments under the Biomass Crop Assistance Program.
  • An amendment by Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) would require USDA to consult with U.S. EPA over the agency's modeling of nutrient inputs to the Chesapeake Bay. Another by Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) would require evaluations of how federal dollars are being spent on Bay restoration efforts.
  • An amendment by Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) would require USDA to submit a report on U.S. water-sharing with Mexico.

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