Thursday, March 8, 2012
Keith Good Farm Policy: Senate Ag Committee Debates Local Food Programs
By Keith Good
Farm Bill Issues
At a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing yesterday in Washington, D.C., Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack testified on a variety of Farm Bill issues relating to local food production and nutrition.
At the opening of the hearing, Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow noted that, “Local food programs represent a very small percentage of the Farm Bill, but they make a very big impact in our communities: Creating jobs and improving access to locally grown foods.”
The Michigan Democrat, who is up for reelection this year, emphasized that, “The continued success of the agricultural economy and the continued growth of jobs in agriculture require both, not either or – both – traditional production agriculture, as well as local efforts.” (related audio (MP3- 0:44)).
Committee Ranking Member Pat Roberts (R., Kans), who has expressed reservations about some of the administration’s local food programs, such as “Know Your Farmer Know Your Food,” noted in his opening remarks that, “I caution that the belief that locally grown and purchased food is inherently better, safer, or more ‘environmentally sustainable’ than food produced elsewhere in our country pits farmer against farmer, town against town, and state against state.
“All food grown in this country is local to their communities regardless of where it’s sold. Now is a time when all of agriculture needs to come under one tent to meet the growing demands of a global population expected to hit 9 billion soon.”
As the number of Americans enrolled in the SNAP program (food stamps) increased by 5.5% last year, 46.5 million people are now enrolled in the program (related chart), Secretary Vilsack took time in his opening remarks to defend the Department’s management of the program.
Sec. Vilsack noted that, “The last year that we have data for, over 784,000 investigations and inquires were made of individuals in terms of SNAP; 44,000 people were disqualified. We have the lowest error rate and the lowest fraud rate we have had in the history of the program.” (related audio- (MP3- 1:00)).
Later, in response to a question from Chairwoman Stabenow, Sec. Vilsack pointed out that 84% of SNAP benefits are redeemed in 16% of the stores in America, and added that “many of the fraud issues that we are dealing with are in small scale venues ”(related audio- (MP3- 1:37)).
Issues regarding legislative definitions also came up at yesterday’s hearing; in particular, the definition of “local” and “rural” were highlighted for clarification.
Click here (MP3- 1:54) to listen to an exchange between Sen. John Boozman (R., Ark.) and Sec. Vilsack on this topic.
Recall that the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture held a hearing on the definition of “rural” last February (2011), an official transcript of this hearing is available here.
In additional developments on nutrition issues, a news release from USDA yesterday stated that, “Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced new steps to enhance the delivery of USDA services while creating greater efficiencies to make the most of taxpayer dollars. USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service is collaborating with six states on new demonstration projects to connect eligible low-income children with free school meals automatically based on information received from Medicaid. The new process will allow for administrative efficiencies, reduce improper payments and streamline efforts to provide access to critical nutrition for kids across the nation.”
A related news release yesterday from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., NY) stated that, “[Sen. Gillibrand], a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, today announced a new federal pilot program which will connect New York City youth from low-income families with free school breakfast and lunch based on their Medicaid information. By automatically enrolling eligible youth from kindergarten through 12th grade, the City will be able to cut through bureaucratic tape and provide an additional estimated 7,000 students throughout the five boroughs with access to healthy school meals. Last year, Senator Gillibrand urged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to select New York City to launch this new streamlined process.”
The news item explained that, “Currently, families on Medicaid must fill out forms each year in order to enroll their children in the school meals program. But many end up paying full cost of the meals, estimated at $270 per year for school lunch for each child, since the necessary paperwork was either lost or not followed through on.”
Meanwhile, a news release yesterday from Senate Ag. Comm. Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) indicated that, “[Sen. Stabenow], Chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and author of new measures to crack down on fraud and abuse in food assistance programs, issued the following statement today regarding news that a lottery winner in Southeast Michigan is still collecting food assistance.
“‘At a time when so many out-of-work Michigan families are in real need of assistance, it’s outrageous for people to cheat and defraud the system like this,’ said Senator Stabenow. ‘Last year I introduced tough new accountability measures, including a requirement that every state implement protections to stop lottery winners from collecting food assistance. Action must be taken to ensure states permanently stop lottery winners and others from wrongfully taking support meant for families that are truly struggling to put food on the table.’”
More specifically on the SNAP program, a news release yesterday from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform stated that, “The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform today released ‘Food Stamp Fraud EXPOSED,’ a new video highlighting recent reports revealing hundreds of merchants previously disqualified from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food stamp program continue to defraud the program. Food stamp fraud costs taxpayers hundreds of millions every year, according to a Scripps Howard News Service investigative report. The [Oversight Committee] hearing [titled, ‘Food Stamp Fraud as a Business Model: USDA's Struggle to Police Store Owners’] will be webcast live [Thursday] at 9:30 AM EST here and more hearing information is available here.”
In news regarding the budget, a key variable in the development of policy in the next Farm Bill, David Rogers reported yesterday at Politico that, “House Budget Committee Republicans are to meet Thursday morning on options for the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, and the GOP is coalescing around a plan that would cap appropriations at a level of $1.028 trillion — nearly $20 billion below what was agreed to last August as part of the Budget Control Act.
“The move is designed to appease fiscal conservatives, many of whom opposed last summer’s debt agreement and have threatened to delay action on the budget. But the strategy only ensures more delay and rancor this year, since the Senate intends to move ahead at the higher $1.047 trillion cap set in the law.”
A House Ag. Comm. news release from yesterday stated that, “Today, the House Agriculture Committee adopted the budget views and estimates letter which outlines the committee’s budget recommendations for the agencies and programs under its jurisdiction for fiscal year 2013. The letter will be submitted to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as required by section 301(d) of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, as well as House Rule X, clause 4(f).”
In part, the letter stated that, “Last fall, in response to the Budget Control Act of 2011 and acting in a bicameral, bipartisan fashion, we proposed $23 billion in net savings from programs under the Committee’s jurisdiction. Those cuts included $15 billion from commodity programs, $6 billion from conservation programs, and $4 billion from nutrition programs.”
During yesterday’s Committee business meeting, where the letter was adopted, Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) noted that, “We worked together in a bipartisan and bicameral fashion to propose $23 billion in savings. Because the Super Committee failed to provide recommendations, we’re starting again at square one. But that doesn’t mean we’ll ignore what we’ve learned along the way…For instance, we’ve heard loud and clear that crop insurance must be a focus in the next Farm Bill.”
Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) pointed out that, “Last year, the House passed a budget that suggested a $30 billion cut to commodity and crop insurance programs, a roughly $20 billion cut to conservation programs and a $127 billion cut to the SNAP program. You cannot pass a farm bill with cuts like those. The Administration’s recent budget also recommended $30 billion in cuts to commodity and crop insurance programs. Again, you cannot have an adequate farm safety net with those reductions.”
Iowa GOP Senator Charles Grassley was a guest on yesterday’s AgriTalk radio program with Mike Adams. In part, their discussion turned to budget issues, the Farm Bill and crop insurance. To listen to a portion of this interesting conversation from AgriTalk yesterday, just click here (MP3-2:30).
On the topic of conservation, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) indicated earlier this week at the Hill’s Congress Blog (“REFRESH Act: Farmers know conservation; Farm bill must put them first”) that, “Conservation policy should promote farm productivity, strengthen true stewardship, and knock down the bureaucratic maze farmers now face. For these reasons, we introduced the REFRESH Act last fall. The REFRESH Act brings real reforms to farm policy and should be the foundation of the next farm bill.”
The Hoosier lawmakers pointed out that, “However, much of the land in the 32-million-acre Conservation Reserve Program was set aside to stop farmers from growing food. That kind of market manipulation makes no sense today. Bureaucrats in Washington cannot offer a compelling argument for the government to lock up rich farm land. That is why the REFRESH Act opens up eight million productive acres to let farmers do what they do best – supply global demand.”
With respect to dairy policy, a news release yesterday from the National Farmers Union (NFU) noted that, “[NFU] delegates adopted four special orders of business, and amended a previously passed order this morning at the 110th Anniversary Convention in La Vista, Neb.”
The update added that, “To represent U.S. family dairies, the delegates passed a special order urging any changes to dairy policy acknowledge the lack of market power among dairy farmers by including meaningful supply management tools.
“‘If margin insurance goes forward, efforts to ensure that family dairies can remain competitive must be instituted, such as premium subsidies for the first four to five million pounds of milk to help offset the cost of the margin insurance program should be included in the program,’ the statement says.”
Trade- Senate Finance Committee Hearing with U.S. Trade Rep. Ron Kirk
The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing yesterday to examine the President’s 2012 trade agenda; U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk testified at the hearing.
A Committee news release from yesterday pointed out that, “In a hearing with [Ambassador Kirk] today to discuss the President’s 2012 trade agenda, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) detailed concrete steps to expand trade opportunities overseas for American businesses, ranchers and farmers, boost U.S. exports and create jobs here at home. Baucus laid out three major trade goals for 2012:
“- establishing permanent normal trade relations [PNTR] with Russia;
“- concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement negotiations; and
“- addressing the challenges posed by China.”
On the first issue, establishing PNTR with Russia, Chairman Baucus and Amb. Kirk discussed the benefits that would accrue to the U.S. if PNTR were established. Part of the discussion focused on the Jackson–Vanik amendment and how the repeal of that 1974 rule would facilitate the technical process of getting PNTR with Russia (Related audio, (MP3- 2:07)).
(As a side note on the Russian trade issue, House Agriculture Committee Member David Scott (D., Ga.) penned an item earlier this at The Hill’s Congress Blog titled, “Cultivating our trade relations with Russia.”)
Committee Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) discussed the TPP agreement and Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) with Amb. Kirk and explored how the negotiation of the TPP is related to Congress passing TPA (Related audio, (MP3- 1:18)).
Sen. Thomas Carper (D., Del.) queried Amb. Kirk about trade issues regarding poultry, including specific developments regarding India, TPP and Mexico. Amb. Kirk also noted the increased importance of exporting protein to the developing world (Related audio, (MP3- 2:43)).
Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) focused a portion of his time at yesterday’s hearing highlighting issues regarding Japan and the prospect of that country joining the TPP. Sen. Thune noted that some agricultural trade barriers are currently in place and expressed concern about the resolution of these policies with Japan within the parameters of the TPP talks (Related audio, (MP3- 2:25)).
A news release yesterday from Sen. Ag. Comm. Ranking Member Pat Roberts (R., Kans.) stated that, “[Sen. Roberts] today pushed for leaders of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) to hold a hearing on a rule that would alter the ability of youth to work on the family farm.
“‘This issue is too important to the success of farms and ranches all across our country,’ said Roberts. ‘We need to have a hearing on this proposed regulation and how it threatens the most fundamental tradition in agriculture—working on the family farm.’”
And a news release yesterday from Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) stated that, “Today [Rep. Goodlatte] introduced bipartisan legislation which will protect the health of the Chesapeake Bay while also ensuring the strength and vitality of our family farms and local communities within the Bay Watershed. The legislation reins in the unchecked power that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has usurped from the Bay area states.”
The release added that, “Unfortunately, proposals like the Presidential Executive Order forces more mandates and overzealous regulations on all of those who live, work, and farm in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. This strategy limits economic growth and unfairly over regulates our local economies. This strategy will limit economic growth and unfairly over regulate our local economies. The Executive Order attempts to give the EPA authority to run roughshod over local communities, farmers and small businesses. This legislation presents a positive alternative.”
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