Congress cleared a bill late Tuesday to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff” that will delay automatic budget cuts to agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control, avoid tax increases for more than 99 percent of Americans and extend part of the farm bill for 9 months.
The bill cleared the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support, 89-8, early Tuesday, and the House approved the bill 257 to 167 before adjourning late Tuesday.
The agreement will kick the can down the road two months on the question of sequestration, which would have cut most agencies’ budgets by 8.2 percent, starting today. Many advocates worry these cuts would have a negative impact on food safety and public health.
As Food Safety News has reported, if these cuts kick in, FDA would see a $318 million budget reduction, about $71 million of which would come out of the agency’s food program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the agency charged with ensuring the safety of meat, poultry and processed egg products, would have to shave $86 million from its budget. The CDC, which monitors foodborne illnesses and tracks multistate outbreaks, would lose $464 million.
The eleventh-hour deal, which was struck two hours after the Bush tax cuts expired, also includes a partial extension of the farm bill, which Congress let expire at the end of September. This may be good news for milk prices, which some thought would double if dairy supports were allowed to expire, but agricultural leaders are worried that the lack of a full extension and no current hope for full renewal is a signal the sector is losing clout on Capitol Hill.
According to an analysis by Politico reporter David Rogers, “As agriculture has grown more concentrated, it commands fewer votes. Indeed, consumer fears about milk prices drove the deliberations more than dairy farmers. And in these tough economic times for the nation, the farm sector has been enjoying relative prosperity and in the eyes of many lawmakers, has become more complacent politically.”
Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) said Tuesday it was “absolutely outrageous” that other expired programs were not included in the extension agreement.
“Without consultation with me or the chairman in the House, we now have a partial extension,” said Stabenow in a “angry speech” on the Senate floor, according to Roll Call. “They not only do not extend all the titles, but they do not include critical disaster assistance.”
The partial extension also includes a full nine-month extension of $5 billion in direct payments to certain commodity farmers, a provision that the full Senate and the House Agriculture Committee had moved to eliminate with bipartisan support over the summer.
The extension does not include any of the major reforms the Senate had been working on for months. The move angered the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which called the deal a “disaster for farmers.”
“The deal is blatantly anti-reform,” said NSAC in a statement Tuesday. “The message is unmistakable – direct commodity subsidies, despite high market prices, are sacrosanct, while the rest of agriculture and the rest of rural America can simply drop dead.”