By Sheri Steisel

While congressional rules frown upon legislating on appropriations bills, the practice is a time-honored tradition.This is especially the case when members of Congress disagree with regulations issued by the executive branch. 

The white potato has become an issue of contention in the Agriculture Appropriations bill. Consider discussions in the U.S. House and Senate Appropriations Committee on the white potato.

In December 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a regulation excluding the white potato from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food package. Families may not use the WIC voucher to purchase white potatoes.  As the only fresh fruit or vegetable excluded from the package, this decision did not sit well with the potato industry and members from potato producing states.

Currently, appropriators in both chambers have been meeting to determine fiscal year 2015 appropriations. One of the 12 appropriations bills, the Agriculture Appropriations bill, or “Ag Approps” determines funding levels for USDA.

Before the Memorial Day recess, the Senate Appropriations Committee adopted an amendment sponsored by Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) that would allow families using the WIC program to purchase all fresh, healthy vegetables, including the white potato. It also allows the administration to pull potatoes back out after a mandated review by USDA of the entire WIC vegetable selection. 

Supporters say that excluding potatoes from the approved WIC food package sends a message to Americans that potatoes are not nutritious and inappropriately limits the choices of those using WIC vouchers.  As you can imagine, the opponents of the change are raising concerns.  First Lady Michelle Obama objects to the change in her op-ed in the New York Times citing the Institute of Medicine’s findings.   

On Thursday, after a spirited debate, the House Appropriations Committee passed House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt’s (R-Ala.) Ag approps bill, including a provision to require USDA to allow purchases of all vegetables including potatoes under the WIC program. 

The bills will now move to the House and Senate floors for further debate, but it does seem like “Big Potato” will prevail and the final bill will emerge from a House/Senate conference with potato-inclusive language. By making it a requirement in a money bill, members ensure that USDA heeds their guidance.

Sheri Steisel is senior federal affairs counsel and senior committee director for Budget and Revenue Committee in Washington, D.C., office.

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