WASHINGTON — In the early-morning hours of Feb. 19, the House of Representatives passed a continuing resolution without an amendment that would have zeroed out funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Market Access Program.
The House approved the temporary funding bill (H.R. 1) by a 235-189 vote, with all Democrats and three Republicans voting against the bill. The resolution expires March 4, leaving the Senate little time to craft its own bill, which may result in another resolution or a government shutdown.
Under the House measure, the Food & Drug Administration would receive a $241 million cut from FY 2010 levels, and the cuts would all have to be absorbed in the last half of the year. This comes just weeks after President Obama signed the sweeping FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.
But it could have been worse for the produce industry.
The final bill did not contain an amendment that would have eliminated funding for MAP, a program that helps exporters, producers and others finance promotional activities for U.S. agricultural products. The House-passed continuing resolution includes the $200 million authorized by the 2008 farm bill. The bill also did not include an amendment that would have barred federal funds for the Mexico cross-border trucking program.
“Our biggest problem was with MAP funding, and that ended up OK,” said Ray Gilmer of the United Fresh Produce Association.
But the Senate is likely to reject the House measure when it returns March 1, and splitting the difference between the two legislative bodies means that government agencies will have to absorb major cuts.
Hopefully, border inspections would continue and trade practices under the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act would not be interrupted, Mr. Gilmer said.
Government programs would fare better in President Obama’s fiscal 2012 budget request that he sent to Capitol Hill Feb. 14. But the bill is just a starting point for negotiations, and funding increases may be hard to come by in the tight economic climate on Capitol Hill.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants $204 million to continue the MAP for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The FDA is asking for an extra $183 million to implement the new food-safety law, including $10.5 million and 21 full-time equivalents to apply new preventive controls on farms. The administration also signaled its plan to continue pursuing registration fees, which were not included in the Senate bill that became the food-safety reform law.
“This budget ensures that all of America’s children have access to safe, nutritious and balanced meals,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at a Feb. 14 press conference on the budget. “It fully funds the expected participation in all the department’s major nutrition assistance programs, including WIC, the National School Lunch Program and SNAP, and the improvements implemented in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. It restores the SNAP benefit from the Recovery Act.”
Funds are also included to enhance sampling under the Microbiological Data Program ($5 million) and to increase funding for state sampling and testing activities under the Pesticide Data Program ($16.6 million) to maintain effective testing levels of foods and drinking water.