Congress Heads into Recess with Work Left to be Done

Congress begins its August recess this week, as Members head home to their districts to campaign for the midterm election despite massive legislative inaction over the past few months. Political infighting has halted appropriations and left Congress with much to do when it returns in September for at most three weeks.

School meal nutrition standards have been a contentious issue contributing to the grinding halt in 2015 Agriculture appropriations. Some Senate Republicans have called for “flexibility” in requiring schools to meet standards, while House Republicans have been more vehement in their opposition. The House Agriculture spending bill was due to include the provision of waivers which would exempt schools who show significant operating losses from meeting the federal standards. However, the President threatened to veto any such bill.

Last week the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry held a hearing on the state of the national school meal program. The hearing centered on the administration of school meal programs and the incorporation of new nutrition standards as included in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which is due to expire next year. This was the second child nutrition hearing convened by Chairwoman Stabenow (D-MI) who used the hearing to emphasize the importance of the school lunch standards in feeding children across the country nutritious meals and to highlight the success of Farm to School programs (Link to the Chairwoman’s opening remarks). In her testimony, Ms. Bettie Wiggins, Executive director of the Office of Nutrition in Detroit Public Schools, backed the Chairwoman and Senate Democrats, claiming that the new nutrition standards have lead Detroit Public Schools to buy more Michigan farm products. However, Ms. Julia Bauscher, President of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), offered support to Senate Republicans, testifying that some schools are burdened with administrative costs because of the new standards and are left with insufficient funds to spend on food itself.

The partisan roadblock over nutrition standards has held up progress on other key agriculture provisions such as the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, minority and veteran outreach, and a revised dairy pricing mechanism. In fact, Congress has come to a standstill on all appropriations, as House Republicans seek to reorganize after the displacement of Majority Leader Eric Cantor and the Senate prepares for possible power shifts in the midterm elections.
The stalled appropriations bill contains items that are crucial to farmers. Outreach and Technical Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers, Ranchers, and Veterans, otherwise known as 2501, saw its funding reduced from $20 million per year to $10 million per year in the 2014 Farm Bill. NFFC and its allies have been working to have funding restored through the appropriations process.
The 2014 Farm Bill also included a new dairy margin insurance program, which is set to replace the Milk Income Loss Contract effective (MILC) September 1st of this year. However, dairy farmers have expressed concerns that this new program does not account for the true costs of production and are pushing for an improved pricing system. The Senate version of the appropriations bill includes language that would require USDA to hold hearings on dairy pricing, something dairy farmers strongly support. For more on NFFC’s recent dairy work, click here.

The expanded Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) is one of the newest Farm Bill provisions. The program is to be implemented by the USDA and receive funding through appropriations after previously being funded only through other agencies. Michelle Obama has been an advocate of expanding HFFI and incorporating it into her “Let’s Move” initiative. HFFI was designed to provide residents of food deserts, with increased access to healthy foods through grants to neighborhood grocery stores and farmers markets. As of the August recess, House and Senate appropriators have not designated any money to the program. There are pending amendments which would increase funding for the program; however, any amendments will have to wait until September at the earliest. Here is a link to an HFFI action alert created by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

It is likely that Congress will seek to pass a continuing resolution as the impasse reached over appropriations edges nearer the November elections. A continuing resolution would maintain the low levels of funding for 2501 as well as HFFI, and swipe aside the Senate appropriations bill and its language concerning dairy hearings until the resolution expires or the regular appropriations process resumes. NFFC will continue to monitor the appropriations process following the August recess.