Congressional Action Update
The House cleared landmark food safety legislation on Tuesday, Dec. 21 overcoming procedural and constitutional obstacles that had threatened to sink the bill in the session’s waning days. By 215-144, the House concurred in a Senate amendment to the bill (HR 2751), which would authorize the biggest overhaul of food safety laws in more than seven decades. President Obama is expected to sign the bill (see summary) into law. The measure would strengthen the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory power and allow the agency to order mandatory recalls. It is backed by a coalition that includes food producers, grocery manufacturers, and consumer organizations. Support for an overhaul increased after several high-profile recalls in recent years of contaminated food products, including peanut butter, spinach, eggs and peppers. The Senate first passed a food safety bill (S 510), 73-25, on Nov. 30. Soon after, House leaders objected because they deemed new fees in the measure to be revenue-raising provisions, which, according to the Constitution, must originate in the House. Senate Democrats then sought to add the food safety provisions to an omnibus spending package or a short-term continuing resolution, both of which carried House bill numbers. But, the omnibus collapsed and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) objected to adding the food safety language to a continuing resolution, leading many supporters of the bill to conclude that it was dead. But in a surprising turn of events, the Senate passed the food safety legislation by voice vote Dec. 19, using a House measure originally related to consumer recycling as a vehicle for the food safety language. The House had passed the companion bill in July 2009 by a vote of 283-142. One major difference between the two versions is an exemption for small farms and processors from much of the new FDA regulation, which the Senate added at the behest of Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT). That provision cost the support of United Fresh and struck some Republican lawmakers as a reason to vote against the legislation in its entirety, in favor of reintroducing the measure next year. Democrats argued, in turn, that while they wished such an exemption had not made it into the final version, passing the bill regardless was imperative. “I would have preferred [the] Senate did not adopt that provision,” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) said. “It’s regrettable that there was no time for conference to make improvements in [the] Senate bill, but [passing the bill] is an opportunity that will not come again for a long time.”
The Senate Dec. 20 (79-16) and the House (193-165) Dec. 21 passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) that will continue FY 2010 funding for most programs until March 4, 2011. The White House said the president would sign the bill (H.R. 3082) into law. Although the House and Senate appropriations committees both wrote and marked up their 12 bills months ago, none were enacted into law as stand-alone measures. Passage of the CR does not mean that work on the FY 2011 bills ends. Instead, it pushes critical spending decisions into next winter. House Appropriations Committee Republicans have said they want to reduce spending to FY 2008 levels-a reduction of approximately $100 billion. While funding for most programs continues at current rates, the CR does include more money for veterans and education programs. The CR was considered a few days after appropriators' plans to push for consideration of an $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill ran into heavy criticism. Although Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Inouye (D-HI) and ranking member Cochran (R-MS) significantly reduced funding for the programs covered by the 12 bills, the omnibus came under attack for its overall size and for $8 billion in earmarks. Sen. Cochran issued a statement saying this year's appropriations process was “extremely disappointing.” Cochran said a CR will constrain the Pentagon and other agencies from carrying out their missions and deny Congress “the kind of thoughtful oversight and detailed guidance that regular appropriations bills provide. I hope that those who opposed how the omnibus bill was crafted and presented will work with me and Chairman Inouye in the next Congress to find a way to consider the appropriations bills individually and in a timely manner,” Cochran concluded.
The continuing resolution sent to the President funds most of the government at FY2010 levels through March 4, 2011. It would provide extra money for some programs and make a number of policy changes. The following are some of the policy provisions and exceptions from level funding:
• Freezes the pay of federal civilian employees in calendar years 2011 and 2012.
• Provides money to maintain a $5,550 ceiling on Pell grants to low-income college students
• Increases funding for the Veterans Benefits Administration to deal with a backlog of claims and prevent layoffs of claims processors.
• Approves the Navy’s plan to buy 20 Littoral Combat Ships from two contractors.
• Extends funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s costs associated with the New START treaty under consideration in the Senate.
• Provides additional Transportation Security Administration funding for cargo security, air marshals on international flights and additional advanced imaging technology machines at airports.
• Extends the authorization for surface transportation programs.
• Allows Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration to continue to purchase or guarantee mortgages up to $729,750 in high-cost areas.
• Extends the Homeland Security Department’s authority to regulate high-risk chemical facilities.