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Senate To Avert Food Aid Fight

By Philip Brasher on June 23, 2014
© CQ

The Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday will take up a Coast Guard reauthorization bill ( S 2444 ) that leaves out a controversial provision in the House-passed version that would increase the amount of food aid that must be shipped on U.S.-flagged carriers. The omission is a victory for groups such as Oxfam America and Bread for the World that have been working to overhaul the way aid has traditionally been procured and delivered. The House bill ( HR 4005 ) would raise the U.S.-shipping requirement from the current 50 percent to 75 percent.

Aid issues boiling in Congress. (USAID)

Aid issues boiling in Congress. (USAID)

Bread for the World is warning that there could still be amendments to increase the U.S. preference. But Senate leaders apparently want to get the bill passed by unanimous consent, and that means avoiding the cargo preference issue, which “is essentially a poison pill,” said Eric Munoz, a policy analyst for Oxfam America.

Also up in the air for now is the issue of whether the administration will be allowed to buy some food aid in overseas markets, near the areas where it will be distributed, instead of it all being U.S. commodities. The new farm bill ( PL 113-79 ) allows up to $80 million in such purchases, but advocates are struggling to get even a fraction of that amount appropriated for fiscal 2015.

The Senate’s Agriculture spending bill, now part of the “minibus” legislation ( HR 4660 ), includes $35 million for overseas procurement, but Majority Leader Harry Reid , D-Nev., pulled the measure off the floor last week, and now its future is in doubt. The House Agriculture bill ( HR 4800 ) was amended on the floor to add $10 million for overseas purchases, but the House has yet to finish action on the legislation.

No matter the outcome this year, this issue is shaping up to be a struggle for some time to come. “I hope what we have established in the first year is the general recognition that the authority is there and needs to be funded and utilized,” Munoz said.

CFTC Vote Expected. The House is scheduled this evening to take up its bill reauthorizing the Commodity Futures Trading Commission after having to hold it over from last week. There’s little chance the bill ( HR 4413 ) will be enacted this year for a number of reasons, including the fact that the White House doesn’t like the measure and the agency can continue operating without statutory authorization.

But the vote will be worth watching to see how much Democratic support it attracts. The bill’s designed to ensure that grain traders and other end-users are largely exempt from Dodd-Frank derivatives rules, an aim that ensured the bill came out of the House Agriculture Committee with bipartisan support.

Despite its dim future this year, the legislation could serve as some basis for Republicans to tackle the Dodd-Frank regulatory act ( PL 111-203 ) should they take over the Senate in this fall’s elections.  Consumer advocates are concerned Wall Street could use the bill as a vehicle to gut Dodd-Frank.

Final votes on the bill are expected Tuesday.

Energy-Water Moving Ahead . The House Rules Committee is scheduled to consider the Energy-Water appropriations bill ( HR 4923 ) on Tuesday, setting it up for floor debate after the Fourth of July recess. The bill includes a provision that would block the Obama administration’s proposed rule defining the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act ( PL 95-217 ). The Senate Appropriations Committee sidetracked its version of the bill last week before Republicans could offer a similar amendment.

School Boards Join Fight Over Standards. The National School Boards Association is giving a boost to the School Nutrition Association’s effort to get a waiver from the new school meal standards taking effect next month. Several school board members, including the president of the Alabama School Boards Association, will talk to reporters today about the issue. Alabama is home to Robert B. Aderholt , chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee and the SNA’s most prominent ally on the issue.

Food Industry Worries Over Standards. Food makers worry over of the standards’ potential to cut into the thin profit margins in the school meal business, CQ Roll Call’s Ellyn Ferguson reports . “Not always, but typically, selling into the schools is not the highest margin sale for the manufacturers,” says Patty Johnson, a global food and beverage analyst for Mintel Group in Chicago. Several large food companies have included the nutrition rules as an area of concern on lobbying reports, although they’ve largely kept a low profile.

Minnesota-based Schwan Food Co. is cited by the standards’ backers as one of the companies behind SNA’s effort to roll the standards back, but a company spokesman denies it put pressure on the group.

Research Plan Under Scrutiny. USDA is being closely watched as it sets up a board to run the new Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research authorized by the farm bill, Ferguson reports. Top USDA officials and a representative from the National Science Foundation will be selecting the board members, and they’re supposed to balance the views of different sectors in U.S. agriculture. That won’t be easy.

Billionaire Bill Gates, who is funding agricultural development worldwide through his foundation, has taken an interest in the new entity and hopes it will provide some assistance in developing seed varieties for Africa. But the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition wants to ensure there’s a focus on helping family farms. The Biotechnology Industry Organization says cutting-edge science should be the priority.

Quotable:  “We want research defined in very broad terms, not just emerging pests or even climate change, but research on the economy of agriculture and everything from nutrition to what is happening with the shrinking [number] of family farms.” — Juli Obudzinski, senior policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

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