Congressional roundup: Funding the government, food safety and START

The U.S. Senate approved a continuing resolution today to fund the federal government at current levels through March 4, 2011. Both the cloture motion and the bill itself passed by large bipartisan majorities; Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin and Republican Chuck Grassley voted for the cloture motion and the funding resolution. Harkin slammed Republicans for blocking the fiscal year 2011 omnibus bill last week, because unlike the continuing resolution approved today, the omnibus bill would have increased funding for programs such as Head Start, child care subsidies, meals for seniors and drugs for AIDS patients. The House of Representatives is expected to approve the continuing resolution later today to stop the government from running out of money at midnight. UPDATE: The House approved the spending bill by 193 to 165, with 75 representatives not voting. All five Iowans voted, and they split along party lines.

A bigger problem will come in March, when House Republicans force through major cuts in domestic spending (probably with the eager cooperation of President Barack Obama). Those will be a drag on the economy, erasing any stimulative effect from the lousy deal Obama struck on extending the Bush tax cuts.

Meanwhile, the House gave final approval to the food safety bill today on a mostly party-line vote of 215 to 144. Iowa’s representatives split the usual way, with Democrats Bruce Braley, Dave Loebsack and Leonard Boswell voting for the bill and Republicans Tom Latham and Steve King voting against it. I am still surprised that the Senate resurrected the food safety bill on Sunday. I have yet to see any explanation for why Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma agreed to let it pass. Coburn had been that bill’s most vocal opponent in the Senate all year. It’s not as if Coburn suddenly decided to stop being a jerk; he appears ready to block the 9/11 responders bill from becoming law during the lame-duck session. Even some Fox News commentators are upset about that political maneuver.

The Senate took a step toward ratifying the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) today. Eleven Republicans joined all Democrats present to approve a cloture motion on that treaty, which the U.S. and Russia signed in April. Grassley voted with most of his GOP colleagues against the cloture motion on START; he has voted for various Republican amendments offered to the treaty. I haven’t seen any statement from his office explaining his opposition. The last START expired in December 2009, and we need to ratify the new treaty in order to resume inspecting Russian nuclear bases. There could hardly be a more important national security issue. Ronald Reagan’s former chief arms control negotiator said last month that Iran and North Korea were the “only two governments in the world that wouldn’t like to see this treaty ratified.”

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Farm Bill Platform Plank

WHEREAS, the Commodity Title of the US farm bill is the largest and most important part of the farm bill, in terms of economic impact in the United States and worldwide;1 and
WHEREAS, farm program crops, like corn, wheat, rice, cotton and soybeans, lack price responsiveness on both supply and demand sides,2 leading in the 20th century to chronic low prices, except for three significant price spikes upward;3 and
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House votes to extend most Bush tax cuts, passes child nutrition act

The House of Representatives voted today to extend the Bush tax cuts affecting individuals earning less than $200,000 annually and families earning less than $250,000. The vote was 234 to 188, mostly along party lines. Iowa Democrats Bruce Braley, Dave Loebsack and Leonard Boswell all voted for the bill, while Republicans Tom Latham and Steve King voted against it. If you click on the roll call, you might notice the vote was on a “Motion to Concur in the Senate Amendment with an Amendment” to the Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2010, Part III. Adding the tax cut language to this vehicle, instead of introducing a new bill, was done to deny Republicans the chance to make a motion to recommit and attach the rest of the Bush tax cuts. David Waldman walks you through the House procedural weeds.

Only three House Republicans voted for this bill, which would permanently extend the Bush tax cuts for 98 percent of filers. Every recent poll shows a minority want to extend the tax cuts for the top income levels. It’s disgusting that Republicans can’t accept even this bill, which gives more money back to wealthier people anyway.

The White House response to today’s vote was even more disgraceful:

“The President continues to believe that extending middle class tax cuts is the most important thing we can do for our economy right now and he applauds the House for passing a permanent extension.  But, because Republicans have made it clear that they won’t pass a middle class extension without also extending tax cuts for the wealthy, the President has asked Director Lew and Secretary Geithner to work with Congress to find a way forward.  Those discussions started just yesterday and are continuing this afternoon.  The talks are ongoing and productive, but any reports that we are near a deal in the tax cuts negotiations are inaccurate and premature.”

Who still believes that Barack Obama wants to win this battle? He isn’t even trying. I wonder if he’s been planning to cave on this issue all along.

Meanwhile, the House passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 today by a vote of 264 to 157. All Iowa Democrats voted yes, as did Latham (one of just 17 Republicans to cross the aisle on this issue). King voted no, along with most of the Republican caucus. The Senate passed this bill by unanimous consent in August. It would improve the school lunch program and fund other child nutrition programs, but unfortunately food stamp funding was used to cover part of the cost. Senator Tom Harkin’s office summarized the bill’s provisions, and I’ve posted that statement after the jump. Referring to the food stamp funding, Harkin states, “President Obama, however, has committed to work with Congress to replace this offset before these SNAP [food stamp] cuts take place in November 2013.” I wouldn’t count on the president keeping that promise in light of today’s White House statement on tax cuts.

UPDATE: Senator Tom Harkin said on December 2 that if Obama caves on the Bush tax cuts, “He would then just be hoping and praying that Sarah Palin gets the nomination.”

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Thicke on tv and other news from the secretary of agriculture race

Despite the salmonella outbreak and egg recall that made national news two months ago, Iowa’s secretary of agriculture race has been overshadowed this fall by campaigns for other offices and the unprecedented drive to remove three Iowa Supreme Court justices. In fact, Democrat Francis Thicke’s campaign has attracted more interest from nationally-known sustainable food advocates than from many Iowa news organizations. Peter Rothberg wrote in The Nation, “there may not be a more important contest this year for farmers and food activists nationwide.”

Republican Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey has been running television commercials for several weeks, but Thicke starts running his own campaign ad in the Des Moines market today. His campaign has an opportunity to increase the ad buy, and due to an unusual situation I’ll cover below, any additional air time Thicke reserves will reduce Northey’s television exposure during the final days of the campaign.

Commercials for Northey and Thicke are after the jump.

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Branstad & Grassley: Bad for Iowa's Economy

The farm policies of Branstad and Grassley have hurt our states' economy. They've been bad for wealth creation and jobs creation.  They've been antibusiness and antifarmer. They have not been up to responding to major crises, like the 1980s farm crisis.
 Branstad, for example, argued that there was no farm crisis.  The headline in The Gazette Cedar Rapids, July 10, 1984 “Branstad says Reagan right:  Farmers well off.” 
 Grassley was a major supporter of the Republican Welfare State, corporate welfare, that is. The Reagan farm bill he supported increased farm subsidies, but lowered market prices even more. We exported more, but at a greater loss per bushel (and less total export value).
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Thicke backs Maine model for egg safety rules

Democratic candidate for Secretary of Agriculture Francis Thicke is calling for regulations “modeled after a program that has been used successfully in Maine for more than 22 years to return integrity to Iowa-produced eggs.” Thicke introduced the proposal during his September 11 debate with Republican incumbent Bill Northey. Excerpt from his opening statement:

The State of Maine’s egg safety program complements the new [Food and Drug Administration] egg rule and shores up weaknesses in the federal rule. Specifically, the Maine program has three features that go beyond the requirements of the new FDA egg rule: 1) An effective program for vaccination of laying hens; 2) Monthly inspection of laying facilities for sanitation, and testing for Salmonella within the building; and 3) Egg testing when Salmonella is found in the building.

I’ve posted the full text of Thicke’s opening statement after the jump. Gabe Licht covered the debate for the Spencer Daily Reporter, and Lynda Waddington was there for Iowa Independent. Northey defended his record on egg safety, denying his department had the authority to inspect the feed mill suspected in the salmonella outbreak:

Thicke reiterated the secretary of agriculture should inspect feed mills, noting the [Jack] DeCoster feed mill filled 12,500 semi loads annually.

“First of all, there is a distinct word in there,” Northey fired back. “… Commercial feed mills that sell feed. The reason that we do that is to actually protect the consumer of those that are buying feed from others. Our regulations are actually not for food safety, but are for protection of consumers… We have been told … this mill does not sell feed — that birds at the other facility are owned by DeCoster as well… Just as we don’t go to a farmer mixing his own feed, we do not go to those mills that are producing feed for private facilities or on their own facilities.”

“The secretary of agriculture has the authority to make rules to cover loopholes and this is a DeCoster loophole playing a shell game and we should not play that game with him,” Thicke said.

The incumbent had pointed words for his rival.

“Unless you know something we need to know more about the situation …, it would be important to … wait for the information and be able to find out whether they were actually in violation of that or not,” Northey said. “… We don’t just make decisions on large facilities different than others because our rule says we are to inspect commercial facilities selling feed to others, not facilities of a certain size.”

Thicke has said Iowa Department of Agriculture rule-making could have closed the loopholes that allowed DeCoster’s feed mill to avoid state inspections.

The secretary of agriculture candidates also clashed over agricultural zoning:

Although both candidates were clear that there is enough room in Iowa for all types of sizes of agriculture, and that they would support all aspects of the industry, a major difference between them was exposed while answering a question regarding local control of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) placement.

“Absolutely,” said Thicke, who argued that allowing local government to decide the site of CAFOs would not add additional regulations for owners, who already must follow county building policies, but would allow local residents control over their environment.

Northey disagreed and stated that agribusinesses “need one set of rules,” otherwise there would be “a real challenge” in getting any new developments approved.

Thicke, who formerly served on the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission, sympathized with country residents who had to live near “toxic fumes,” while Northey sympathized with producers “who have been demonized.”

Speaking of local control, last week Dave Murphy of Food Democracy Now wrote about the connection between DeCoster’s operations and Iowa’s 1995 law protecting CAFOs from zoning at the county level:

After initially rising from poverty in Maine with a small chicken operation, DeCoster’s run-ins with New England legal authorities led him to flee to Iowa, where he ventured into building hog confinements and factory farm egg facilities just in time to coincide with that state’s loosening of the environmental regulations in 1995, with the passing of House File 519, which stripped all local authority from regulating factory farms.

The passage of this piece of legislation single-handedly pushed more independent hog farmers out of farming in Iowa, the nation’s number one hog and egg producer, than any other law in the state’s history. Since 1994, the year prior to the passage of H.F. 519, Iowa has lost nearly 72% of the state’s hog farmers, as the number has dropped from 29,000 to 8,300 today. As part of the industry trend, hogs moved off pasture into massive warehouse-style confinements, hundreds of which Jack DeCoster built across much of central Iowa, laying the foundation for a “protein” producing empire that included pork, eggs and a steady stream of state and federal violations.

That would be a great issue to use against Republican gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad, in an alternate world where the Culver-Judge administration and the Democratic-controlled Iowa legislature had done something to advance local control during the past four years.

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