Politics & Government

'Status quo' farm spending bill nears House passage

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives has written a $123.8 billion farm spending bill that's loaded with congressional earmarks.

Brushing off conservative criticism, lawmakers are steering funds toward California pest detection, wine grape research and "asparagus production technologies," among other targeted projects. More broadly, the funding bill largely retains the farm policy status quo some hoped to change.

"This is being viewed as a critical component of the continuing success of California agriculture," said Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League. "This is truly about investing in agriculture."

The bill set for approval late Wednesday or early Thursday funds the Agriculture Department and related agencies for fiscal 2010. It closely resembles past appropriations bills, passed under both Democratic and Republican controlled Congresses.

House members, for instance, ignored President Barack Obama's requests to impose tighter limits on crop subsidies. Obama also wanted higher fees on some agricultural inspections. Lawmakers said no. Obama proposed a 20 percent cut in the Market Access Program much beloved by California farm organizations. Lawmakers kept the funding steady.

The $200 million-a-year Market Access Program is among the most closely watched farm programs among the nation's specialty crop producers. It also illustrates how lawmakers put together the agricultural appropriations bill, one of a dozen needed to keep the federal government running.

Each year, the Market Access Program provides money to help groups like the California Table Grape Commission, the California Walnut Commission and the California Asparagus Commission promote overseas sales. Last year, roughly one-third of the funding recipients represented California farm products.

Obama's proposed fiscal 2010 budget contended the program's "economic impact is unclear" and suggested it amounted to "corporate welfare." A Pennsylvania Democrat, Rep. Patrick Murphy, prepared an amendment to cut the funding in half; another lawmaker wrote an amendment to eliminate the funding altogether.

"Congressman Murphy believes that taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill for multimillion-dollar corporations' overseas marketing campaigns, and that corporate giveaways such as the Market Access Program should be cut to pay down our debt," Murphy's spokeswoman, Kate Hansen, said Wednesday.

The leadership-controlled House Rules Committee, however, would not permit either Market Access Program amendment to the floor for a full House vote. The rules panel, including Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, permitted 13 amendments to be offered out of 90 that that been authored.

"I truly fear that you know not the danger you do to the institution when you cut off debate," Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Iowa, told House Democrats.

Democrats respond that many of the GOP amendments are repetitive or are designed to impede timely passage of the bill.

Many of the proposed amendments sought to eliminate specific earmarks. One, for instance, would have cut a $300,000 earmark set aside for "a study of best practices in agricultural waste management in California."

Because the appropriations bill must be passed to avoid a government shutdown, lawmakers traditionally use it to impose policy prescriptions.

The House bill, for instance, continues a ban on poultry products from China. It also cuts off funding for a "national animal identification system," initiated to track diseased animals. More than $142 million has been spent on the animal ID system since 2004, but it is not yet fully operational.

The overall bill is a 14 percent increase over 2009 spending, largely because of higher food stamp expenditures during the ongoing recession.

Specific funding includes:

  • $3 million for the Center for Advanced Viticulture and Tree Crop Research in Davis.
  • $704,000 for California fresh produce food safety research and $173,000 for asparagus production research in Washington state.
  • $5.3 million for research into the Sudden Oak Death syndrome that's wiping out oak trees throughout California.
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