“Megabus” Funding Bill Done, Late Deal on Payroll Tax Holiday

December 22, 2011 Bookmark and Share

Most lawmakers are headed home for the winter holidays after finalizing funding for the federal government through September.

The spending bill, which was passed by the House on Friday and the Senate on Saturday, is being called a “megabus” because it combines most but not all of the 12 regular appropriations bills, totaling more than $900 billion.

It was the last piece of work Congress was required to finish before breaking for the year, with a continuing resolution funding the government expiring last Friday.

Shortly before press time, it appeared the leadership of both Congressional chambers and President Barack Obama had also coalesced around a plan to extend expiring payroll tax holiday provisions for two months pending a longer-term extension after the first of the year. This had been a major point of contention that kept some House Members in town until late in the week.

Despite this dispute, passage of a long-term spending bill is encouraging ahead of a year expected to be heavy on both priorities and politicking before the 2012 elections.

Of note to the agriculture community, the megabus bill included $1.17 billion allocated for food security and agricultural development work through the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), some of which should go to international wheat and maize research organization CIMMYT. The World Bank’s Global Agriculture and Food Security Program was funded at $135 million. Both of these are particular achievements in the current budget environment for important international work.

Related to trade policy, the bill did not include a proposed rider that would have reversed recent policy changes for Cuba travel, which at one point was a major roadblock for the measure’s passage.

However, the bill also did not include language from H.R. 872 or another legislative fix for new and duplicative pesticide permitting requirements that emanate from a 2009 Sixth Circuit Court ruling. Work will continue to resolve this issue as quickly as possible in the new year.

Funding for USDA programs was not a part of the megabus bill, having been approved in November as part of a smaller appropriations and continuing resolution measure.

That bill funded USDA agencies and programs at $136.6 billion, a reduction of $4.6 billion from the Obama Administration’s request. Discretionary spending made up $19.8 billion of the total, $350 million below last year’s level and $2.5 billion below the Administration’s request.

Agricultural research programs took a hit in the bill, though conferees avoided the draconian cuts included the House-passed appropriations measure.

The agriculture appropriations measure provided $2.297 billion for the National Institute on Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), which is approximately $12 million below the Senate level and $282 million above the House.

The Senate’s number for ARS prevailed, with the bill ultimately providing $1.095 billion, down from $1.133 billion in FY2011. The House had proposed a funding level of $995.3 million, which would have represented a cut of more than 12 percent.

That bill’s conference committee largely rejected House-level cuts to conservation programs and fully funded both the Market Access Program (MAP) and the Foreign Market Development (FMD) program, which are key to the wheat industry’s marketing work around the world.