September 28, 2018
Earlier this week, the House passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) for spending bills that have not yet been passed, which would extend government funding levels from fiscal year (FY) 2018 through December 7 of this year. The CR was passed as part of a “minibus” spending bill package (H.R. 6157) that included FY 2019 funding for the Department of Defense and the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. In addition to the two funding bills that have been passed, there are ten other annual funding packages that are still awaiting congressional action.
The Defense and Health and Human Services minibus package passed on the floor of the Senate last week. The CR was added to the minibus in order to increase the likelihood that a complete funding package could pass the two chambers and be signed by the President before September 30, thereby avoiding a partial government shutdown.
As we have previously reported, the agriculture spending bill for FY 2019 was included in a different minibus along with three additional bills – Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies; Financial Services and General Government; and Housing and Urban Development. The House and Senate already passed the first minibus for Energy and Water, Legislative Branch, and Military Construction and Veteran Affairs, and it was signed by the President earlier this month.
The conference committee tasked with working out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the minibus that includes agriculture last conferenced on September 11. Several outstanding controversial “policy riders” were debated during this last meeting, and unfortunately, the committee was unable to reach consensus on each of them. As a result, the minibus package was held up. Within the agriculture portion of the minibus, there are several outstanding non-funding related issues including: horse slaughter, genetically engineered salmon, cell-based meat, e-cigarettes, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) retail sales data.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is disappointed that appropriators have allowed the on-time passage of an agriculture appropriations bill become derailed by these aforementioned policy riders. The agriculture portion of the minibus, though not yet finalized, includes significant investments in sustainable agriculture priority programs for FY 2019; there is therefore a lot at stake for family farmers and farm advocates if an agriculture appropriations bill is not swiftly passed through Congress and signed by the President. NSAC’s conference recommendations can be referenced to see the details of the House and Senate versions of FY 2019 spending bills and our recommendations for a final spending package.
Congress will now have until December 7 to finalize funding levels for programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration. Both of the original House and Senate agriculture appropriations bills for FY 2019 included additional investments in key programs. For example, the Senate bill increased funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP). The House bill increased funding for Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA); and both FY 2019 bills maintained a number of important program funding increases won in FY 2018.
In addition to missing the deadline for an on-time agriculture spending bill, Congress is moving towards letting the 2014 Farm Bill expire (deadline also September 30) without an extension of current authority. As explained in our most recent blog post on the subject, allowing the farm bill to expire without an extension would have major implications for farmers, ranchers, and rural communities across the country.
One major implication of a farm bill expiration without extension would be the stalling of the majority of conservation programs. Without a new farm bill or an extension, USDA will lack the authority to enroll any new contracts in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), or the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).
In addition to our nation’s core conservation programs, there are also numerous “tiny but mighty” farm bill programs at stake, which support value-added agriculture, organic agriculture, beginning farmers, farmers of color, and local and regional food systems. NSAC has detailed the impact of these programs and the potential gravity of their expiration over the past month in a blog series entitled, What’s at Stake. These 10 tiny but mighty programs, which together cost only $140 million per year – less than half of one percent of the total farm bill’s annual cost – will no longer be able to fund new applications and proposals after September 30 if Congress does not provide funding through a new farm bill or an extension package.
Congress is also on track to leave for recess without having taken any legislative action to push back against the Administration’s proposed relocation of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). This proposed move is concerning to the research, economics, and agriculture communities for several important reasons. The first is that the physical move of the agencies will isolate them from key colleagues and resources concentrated in the capital, and the second being that the administrative relocation of ERS from the research mission area of USDA to within the Office of the Secretary (under the direction of the Chief Economist) risks politicizing and therefore undermining USDA’s independent economic analysis agency.
Agriculture Committee members, appropriators, and congressional leadership have all expressed serious concern and posed pointed questions to the Administration regarding the ERS move. Additionally, former Department of Agriculture officials highlighted serious problems and called for an independent review of USDA’s decision to move both agencies, during a webinar last week. NSAC is deeply concerned about the proposal and extremely disappointed at the likelihood that Congress will leave for recess without taking any legislative action to challenge the proposed move.
With only one legislative day to go before the September 30 deadline, the future of sustainable agriculture priority programs remains uncertain. The current CR will fund discretionary programs only through early December, the farm bill is set to expire without much hope for an extension or conferenced bill before September 30, and a proposal to massively overhaul and relocate agricultural research agencies has yet to be statutorily challenged by Congress.
The likelihood that the third minibus containing FY 2019 funding for agriculture and food programs will make it across the finish line today is highly unlikely. However, NSAC will continue to report on any and all updates on the appropriations front, as well as provide ongoing coverage on the farm bill in the weeks and months ahead.
Categories: Budget and Appropriations