Washington Insider-- Thursday

Secretaries Vilsack and Burwell Address Dietary Guidelines

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Bankers Anxious About Proposed Funding Offset for Highway Bill

Bank officials are trying to persuade House members to kill a proposal that would use money from banks to fix the nation's highways, fearing that once Congress taps the finance industry to help fund infrastructure projects, it will be a precedent for more action ahead.

The Senate wants to cut an annual dividend of 6% that banks receive from the Federal Reserve and use the funds to help fund a highway authorization.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has told House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., to move forward on a highway bill without expecting a contribution from a tax overhaul. Shuster met early Oct. 6 with Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe said Shuster seemed committed to introducing a six-year bill renewing highway and transit programs and is willing to consider offsets included in a Senate-passed, six-year highway bill.

Congress has until Oct. 29 to pass legislation before a three-month highway patch expires.

Bankers reacted negatively. "The idea that going forward that we are going to pay for our nation's infrastructure on the backs of one industry sector is a really flawed public policy," said American Bankers Association Incoming President Rob Nichols.

However, last week Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told bank executives at a private meeting in Washington there was no way he would remove the provision that reduces the dividend to 1.5% for banks with more than $1 billion of assets. House members now have to decide by month's end whether to back the Senate's approach before highway funding expires.

The dividend cut could result in $17 billion in extra money for the federal government over the next 10 years, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates. The annual dividend totals less than $350 million apiece for JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co.

Of note, Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen expressed concern over the dividend reduction, saying it "could conceivably have unintended consequences, and I think it deserves serious thought and analysis."


Washington Insider: Secretaries Vilsack and Burwell Address Dietary Guidelines

As almost everybody knows, USDA and HHS jointly publish a set of Dietary Guidelines for Americans every five years. Both USDA and HHS, are fond of saying that these "provide evidence-based food and beverage recommendations" for Americans ages 2 and older. The effort is intended to promote health and prevent chronic disease -- and, to guide government policy in its many important food programs.

To build its 2015 edition, the administration did what governments do, it formed a large committee of highly credentialed professionals "to help our citizens make their own informed choices about their diets and create a roadmap for preventing diet-related health conditions, like obesity, diabetes and heart disease."

As has been the case in recent editions of blog posts from Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell, the effort has become quite controversial and it was the clear purpose of the latest Vilsack-Burwell blog to damp-down controversies created by their own advisory committee in preparing for the guidelines themselves -- and perhaps to create a bit of a backfire before their Congressional appearances this week.

First, they said the 2015 edition is not done yet, but it "will be similar in many key respects to those of past years. Fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains and lean meats and other proteins, and limited amounts of saturated fats, added sugars and sodium remain the building blocks of a healthy lifestyle."

Then, they discussed their process. The term "latest research" was used a lot, along with "current understanding of the connections between diet and health." They also referred to the high qualifications of the experts consulted, the "thousands of scientific papers" prepared and the public comments assembled. There also was the "systematic and transparent review of the current body of nutrition science." It was, all agree, a serious effort.

Then, they got to the point -- what will not be in the guidelines, and that is "the goal of sustainability."

The blog took the trouble to try to define what they were talking about -- "the environmental impact of a food source." However, that didn't help much and certainly will be unsatisfactory to many producers who think their management practices are not any of the government's business.

However, it turns out that more than a few of the advisory committee members thought that sustainability was quite clear and should be included as a desirable characteristic of recommended diets. The Secretaries insist that won't work and point out that USDA is already supporting that with numerous programs in operation "in all 50 states." They mentioned support for "sustainable food production," and "sustainable farming practices." All very important, the secretaries said, but not within the scope of dietary guidelines.

So, the departments will carefully focus "within the scope of our mandate in the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act" which mentions dietary information and guidelines "based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge."

So, nothing final yet, but sustainability is not within the scope of the national dietary conversation.

Well, it is not clear what the Departments expected would come from this blog. Some of the producer groups seem to be saying it is a bit of a victory for their side. We'll see.

There is an overall sense that the only way a victory could have come from this is if the issue had been damped down completely before it surfaced, a near impossibility given the prevalence of leaks and the intensity of feelings on the matter. The fact is that it is almost the main purpose of more than a few "food experts" to impose "sustainability" on the sector, and to define that as broadly as possible, so almost any large committee might have run into at least some of the same issues.

Given the current state of play, the blog may resonate with the Congressional oversight folks some but the tone of this week's hearings certainly suggests it will not satisfy them. So, there is a possibility this fight will change the Guideline process significantly, or perhaps end it.

Still, the pull back on sustainability was necessary since it can't really be defined and doesn't fit well in a guideline on diets and nutrition. What happens next -- and whether the process is continued -- remains to be seen, Washington Insider believes.

Want to keep up with events in Washington and elsewhere throughout the day? See DTN Top Stories, our frequently updated summary of news developments of interest to producers. You can find DTN Top Stories in DTN Ag News, which is on the Main Menu on classic DTN products and on the News and Analysis Menu of DTN’s Professional and Producer products. DTN Top Stories is also on the home page and news home page of online.dtn.com. Subscribers of MyDTN.com should check out the US Ag Policy, US Farm Bill and DTN Ag News sections on their News Homepage.

If you have questions for DTN Washington Insider, please email edit@dtn.com