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[Photographs: william couch]

Sometimes weeks come and go without much in the way of big agricultural policy news. I find these weeks a little dull. But this past week, as the House debated the Fiscal Year 2012 House Agriculture Appropriations bill for several days, the headlines reported several noteworthy decisions. Both the House and the Senate have been holding interesting debates—and making crucial votes on funding—that are worth keeping an eye on. Here's a basic rundown.

Last Thursday, the House was split almost along party lines after voting on the FY12 House ag appropriations bill, which details funding for federal agriculture and nutrition programs. The bill, which passed 217 to 203, contains several provisions related to federal agencies.

It cuts FDA funding by 21%, bringing the Administration's budget well below what president Obama had requested. It also cuts funding to the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program by about 10%, to just about $6 billion from $6.7 billion. Another amendment accepted by the House blocks funding for the USDA's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" initiative.

House democrats were upset with the outcome, chiding republicans for pushing amendments that reduce spending on programs meant to serve needy populations. Critics also noted that in the aftermath of the German E. Coli outbreak, ensuring the safety of our food production through FDA programs is even more essential. But Republicans emphasized the importance of reducing the federal deficit, and said that this bill reduced spending while still preserving agricultural security and rural livelihoods.

On the same day, the House also rejected a slew of amendments that would reduce funding for direct payments and subsidies for farmers. One of these amendments would have directly prohibited about $125,000 in subsidies from being passed along to farmers. Another contained language that would have limited direct payment subsidies to farmers with adjusted gross income over $250,000 annually (the cap is currently set at $1.5 million).

And the House wasn't the only center for agricultural debate on Thursday. The Senate voted 73 to 27 to eliminate the $6 billion in federal funding allocated each year for ethanol subsidies. This vote will surely be contested, as the White House has previously pledged not to completely eliminate this subsidy, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has already spoken out against the strong language of this bill.

But the Senate's vote indicates a lack of confidence in the viability of this renewable energy source, and a desire to shift that funding to other programs.

None of these decisions are binding, but all of them are important. As Congress gears up for the 2012 Farm Bill, tracking the House and Senate voting patterns gives a good idea of the types of changes we can expect in that hugely influential bill.

It sometimes can feel as though either nutrition and environmental programs are being targeted, or that Big Ag is feeling the pressure from activists and sustainability experts. But if these recent votes are any indication, budget cuts are the name of the game this year—and all sorts of organizations and programs are at risk.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.

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