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Agriculture spending bill passes Senate, House next

Members of the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan agriculture appropriations bill Tuesday as part of a larger appropriations process that will soon be merged with an earlier offering by the U.S. House.

The 2012 fiscal year package, which was a three-part “minibus,” included appropriations for several departments and agencies in addition to agriculture — commerce, justice, science, transportation and housing and urban development. The final vote in the Senate was 69-30 with 49 Democrats, 16 Republicans and one Independent giving a nod to the measure.

The Iowa delegation split its vote. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican, voted against and U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, voted in favor. U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did not vote.

Both the House and Senate offerings call for continued massive cuts to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). The Senate makes cuts of 12 percent, or $726 million (which is in addition to $500 million that was cut as part of the FY 2011 appropriations process). The U.S. House bill makes cuts of $1 billion in addition to the earlier cuts.

CSP is a voluntary program that rewards farmers and ranchers for managing their land in a way that produces measurable conservation outcomes such as healthy soil, clean water and wildlife habitats. The program was significantly strengthened and expanded as part of the 2008 Farm Bill (PDF) by allowing farmers throughout the nation to continuously enroll in the program — an estimated 13 million acres nationally per year.

Payments done through the program are dependent upon expected environmental benefits, property owner improvement costs and income that was set aside by the property-owner as part of the focus on conservation. The USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) estimates average payment to be $18 per acre, but payments per acre do vary and there is a cap of $200,000.

The House bill also contains a provision that would prohibit the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s GIPSA (Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Act) rulemaking process (PDF), effectively preventing the department from acting upon more than a year of public comments and study. The provision is not included in the Senate version of the bill, and has already been criticized by a mixed bag of opponents such as the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union.

While supporters of the proposed rules contend that the proposal rules (PDF) will level the playing field between small- and medium-sized producers and their larger counter parts, a chief critic has been U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican who leads the House Ag Committee.

“The Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration has put forward a draft rule that defines unfair livestock marketing practices, prohibits packers from purchasing livestock from another packer, and will inhibit the ability of producers to manage risk and earn premiums for their hard work and expertise in cattle production,” Lucas wrote in a commentary circulated by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

“While this rule is intended to promote transparent and efficient markets, I’ve heard testimony from many industry leaders who argue that this rule will hurt the very producers it is purported to help.”

In general, the House ag appropriations bill differs from the Senate bill by making steeper cuts nearly across the board, although they both offer significant reductions.

Existing appropriations will carry the nation through Nov. 18. In addition to new ag appropriations, Congress needs to move on 11 additional appropriations bills ahead of that date or agree to continuing resolutions. At the latest count, House members have moved on six of the 12 needed bills; Senate members have moved on four.

When the ag appropriation goes into the conference committee, it is no longer subject to amendments, but will nonetheless exit a changed bill as the vision of the two chambers are shaped into one bill.

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