Legislative Activity

Farm Bill Conference Progress

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has remarked publicly that a farm bill compromise is “doable” before Congress leaves for the Thanksgiving break, as agreements may have been reached or are close to being reached on issues including dairy, crop insurance, and conservation. It also appears that the conference committee is at the point of sending to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) proposed measures. Based on reports from the Hill, the CBO scores for these measures estimate cost-savings well below conferees’ expectations.

Farm Bill in the Budget Deal

The farm bill is now expected to be included in a larger congressional budget deal.  This approach was discussed in last week’s Capital Thinking blog post. Most likely, the bill will be attached to the next continuing resolution, although it is unclear at this time. Last week, Chairwoman Stabenow and House Agriculture Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) held a meeting with senior White House officials and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, after which Chairwoman Stabenow said that the farm bill will definitely be part of a Congressional budget deal. Ranking Member Peterson, however, still continues to push back against including the farm bill in a budget deal and indicated that the White House is not interested in such an approach.

The White House has not made any public statements on whether to include the farm bill in a congressional budget deal, but President Obama said in a speech last Friday that passing a farm bill is his number one priority in helping to drive the economy. With the White House meeting taking place last week and President Obama’s comments over the past few weeks about the farm bill being a top priority of his administration, it appears that Chairwoman Stabenow has been tasked by the administration with a “must win” of getting a bill on President Obama’s desk by the end of the year or by the State of the Union.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

Last week’s meeting between the Democratic agriculture leadership and White House officials, including Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, focused on compromises to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that would not trigger a White House veto.  For more information on the White House’s position on SNAP, read last week’s Capital Thinking blog post.

Although Chairwoman Stabenow suggests, in a more positive light, that SNAP negotiations among conferees are proceeding, conferee Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) is giving alternative insights into the negotiations on SNAP. He has shared publicly that the SNAP issue is the most difficult to resolve. Most likely, Democrats are pushing for SNAP cuts to be no higher than $10 billion over ten years to which Republicans disagree, particularly conferee Rep. Steve Southerland who helped to engineer the House’s Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act that would cut SNAP funding by $39 billion over ten years.

Regulatory Activity

Partially Hydrogenated Oils Ban

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is seeking comments on its preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) used in foods are not “generally recognized as safe”. PHOs are the primary source of trans fat in processed foods. FDA’s justification for its preliminary determination is that the elimination of PHOs in foods could prevent up to 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year. Critics argue that the ban would have unintended consequences because oils that would replace PHOs tend to be high in saturated fats. Comments are due by January 17, 2013.

GMO Apple Petition

The Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspections Service (APHIS) is seeking additional comments in making a decision on Canadian company Okanagan Specialty Fruits’ petition for non-regulated status of genetically engineered apples to resist browning. APHIS is requesting comments on a plant pest risk assessment and draft environmental assessment. Comments are due by December 9, 2013.