Below is the latest NACS Washington Report prepared by McAllister & Quinn.
Washington Report Headlines
· House, Senate Panels Laying Groundwork for Early Action on ‘15 Bills
· USDA Proposes to Close 250 FSA Offices
Federal Employee News
· Senate Pushing Ahead with Long Term Unemployment Bill
News from the Halls of Congress
USDA Proposes to Close 250 FSA Offices
The U.S. Department of Agriculture March 26 proposed closing 250 Farms Service Agency offices nationwide in its fiscal year 2015 budget request.
The proposal alarmed members of the Senate Appropriations Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies Subcommittee at a hearing, who expressed concern about modernizing technology and the implementation of 2014 farm bill programs.
More than 2,000 local FSA offices support the delivery of USDA programs, including crop insurance, disaster assistance and farm loans.
Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsak told the subcommittee that the USDA continually seeks ways to leverage scarce resources due to years of forced budget cuts. FSA's budget has gone from about $3.2 million in 2013, to $1.5 million requested for fiscal 2015.
However, Vilsak said the proposed closings are more about where the work is than saving money. There are currently 111 FSA offices with only one employee, and 30 with no employees, Vilsak said. The USDA hopes to consolidate and modernize these and other locations across the country to better serve farmers.
Modernization means updating information technology systems. Billions of dollars of annual farm program payments to producers depend on outdated IT systems, Vilsak said. Upgrading them would streamline business processes and deliver programs more efficiently.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) expressed doubt over the feasibility of modernizing FSA information systems.
The USDA implemented MIDAS in April 2013, a data program that improved storage and retrieval of current farm records. It integrated this information with land use and imagery data and producer information, according to the fiscal 2015 budget request. Vilsak said that by the end of 2014 producers will be able to locate these records at local FSA locations, and by the end of 2015 access the records from their own home.
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), chairman of the subcommittee, also raised concerns about the implementation of new programs authorized by the 2014 farm bill (P. L. No. 113-79). For example, under the new law direct crop payments were repealed, which paid farmers a fixed rate for every acre they owned. They are replaced with two programs expanding crop insurance, Price Loss Coverage (PLC) and Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC), in which payments are made based on revenue shortfalls relative to certain benchmarks set by Congress.
Pryor asked whether closing various FSA locations could compromise USDA's ability to apply provisions of the farm bill, particularly in rural areas. Vilsak told the subcommittee that the USDA will conduct a work study to pinpoint which FSA offices can be consolidated without harming service to farmers. Closures likely would occur in 2015.
House, Senate Panels Laying Groundwork for Early Action on ‘15 Bills
Ramped up schedule reflects appropriators' plan to move individual spending bills early this year in anticipation of floor action in summer.
The annual appropriations process is shifting into high gear, with House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over federal discretionary spending planning more than 30 hearings during the week of March 31.
Armed with leadership commitments that their bills will move to the floors of both chambers, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) have called a long list of top Obama administration officials to testify the week of March 31 in advance of writing the 12 spending measures this spring.
The 33 hearings appropriators in both chambers have scheduled reflects their plan to wrap up the sessions early and then be able to begin marking up the fiscal year 2015 spending bills by May in advance of floor action in the House and Senate. That scenario greatly increases their chances of passing the measures individually and avoiding a repeat of last year when all the fiscal year 2014 bills were rolled into one omnibus months after the start of the fiscal year. Both Rogers and Mikulski want to avoid any replay of last year's budget process, which was marked by a lengthy government shutdown, furloughs, and funding cuts forced by sequestration.
They also want to remove any possibility that Congress will resort to another series of continuing resolutions to fund the government—which they equate to government on auto pilot and view as diminishing appropriators' role in setting government spending priorities. Aiding their work is the December budget agreement that set so-called top line discretionary spending figures for both 2014 and 2015. In recent weeks, House Republican leaders removed any doubts that the House will follow the $1.014 trillion cap set out by the agreement negotiated by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash). In addition, they also said the House will follow its parameters for defense and nondefense spending.
Also assisting their work is the commitment from leaders in both chambers that they will make floor time available for the bills they develop. Mikulski announced her committee's plans to begin marking up bills May 22 after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he would make floor time available in June and July for the measures.
Meanwhile, Republicans, even among those on the Appropriations Committee, also are less than enthusiastic about bills reflecting the $1.014 trillion cap. The committee's next set of hearings begins April 1 with Securities and Exchange Commission Chairwoman Mary Jo White testifying. Then, on April 2, the panel has 10 separate hearings planned, with including sessions where Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan will testify on their department's budget requests. Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also is scheduled to appear before the panel.
The House committee also has another nine hearings scheduled on April 3, including an oversight session where all the Transportation Department's modal administrators will testify on their budgets and programs. The week's hearings wrap up April 4 with another five meetings, including one where Attorney General Eric Holder will testify on the Justice Department budget. Across Capitol Hill, Mikulski's committee has six hearings scheduled April 2, including sessions with HUD Secretary Donovan, U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah James, and National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins. On April 3 the committee has two additional hearings, including one with Holder testifying on DOJ's budget.
Federal Employee News
Senate Pushing Ahead with Long Term Unemployment Bill
The U.S. Senate voted to advance legislation restoring benefits for the long-term unemployed that the Obama administration has sought to revive since they expired late last year.
By a vote of 65-34, with 60 required for approval, the Senate agreed to move toward taking up the measure, which is the product of a bipartisan agreement struck earlier this month by Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed, Nevada Republican Dean Heller and eight other senators.
Ten Republicans joined with the chamber’s 55 Democrats and voted in favor of advancing the bill, which faces opposition in the Republican-run House.
The bill, which the Senate probably will complete early next week, would reauthorize emergency unemployment benefits for five months.