December 22, 2018
Just one day after the President signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) – the department tasked with implementing the new law – was forced to close its doors as part of a partial government shutdown. Last night at midnight, funding expired for both USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which are funded through the Agriculture Appropriations Bill. At the same time, all parts of the government funded under the six additional outstanding fiscal year (FY) 2019 appropriations bills will be affected by the partial shutdown – in total nine departments and several agencies.
Congress has already passed five of the 12 spending bills, which means that we will at least avoid a total government shutdown. Up to this point, the staff and priorities covered by the remaining seven have been operating under an extension of FY 2018 spending levels. Without another extension of FY 2018 funding or the passage of FY 2019 spending bills, these agencies will be forced to shut down all but the most essential services.
How Did We Get Here?
The December 21 deadline was the second extended deadline that Congress had given itself to pass the remaining seven spending bills. They first kicked the annual fiscal year deadline of September 30 to December 7, but when they were unable to reach an agreement, they then bought themselves an additional two weeks and extended the deadline to December 21.
In addition to a few relatively minor outstanding policy issues, the major item holding up the spending bills has been President Trump’s demand that any spending package include $5 billion to begin building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The President has requested these funds be allocated within the Department of Homeland Security spending bill, one of the seven remaining bills.
Earlier this week, it appeared that Congress would avoid a shutdown and punt the spending fight into the new year (and to the new, incoming 116th Congress, with the House under Democratic control). The Senate passed a continuing resolution (CR) on a bipartisan basis to extend appropriations through February 8, and included no funding for the border wall. Initially, it had seemed as if things would move swiftly and smoothly from there and a shutdown would be averted. The White House sent strong signals that would be the case, and Senators boarded flights to go home for the holidays.
Things took a U-turn on Thursday, however, when President Trump declared that he wouldn’t sign off on the Senate-passed CR without additional funds for the border wall. Following the President’s lead, the House then pivoted away from taking up the Senate’s “clean” CR. Instead of going with the bipartisan Senate bill, they chose to pass a new CR that would keep the same February 8 deadline in the Senate bill but also include $5 billion in new funding for the border wall; additional funding for disaster aid was also added.
Even though the bill had no chance of passing the Senate, where they’d need 60 votes to pass it, Senate leadership ordered Senators back to DC and moved forward with a vote on the House bill regardless. A vote to begin debate on the bill passed, 48-47, with Vice President Pence as the final vote. Given that the CR with border funding can’t pass the Senate, the country was pushed toward a partial shutdown. Leadership will continue to negotiate to try to reach a compromise that can pass both chambers, but they agreed that nothing else will be voted on except a final deal that has sign-off from Republican and Democratic leadership, as well as the the White House. It remains unclear how long this will continue with just a few days left before Christmas.
What Does the Shutdown Mean for Agriculture?
While USDA will need to keep a number of employees working to handle critical functions, non-essential programs will be forced to a halt. Essential activities includes but are not limited to: food safety extensions, wildfire suppression, nutrition assistance programs, and monitoring imports for pests and diseases. The number of employees that will be furloughed will depend on how long the shutdown lasts. More details on which USDA employees would continue to work under a partial shutdown are available from USDA here.
In addition to the immediate repercussions of the shutdown for USDA’s day-to-day functioning, it is also extremely concerning to have the Department handicapped in this way just as they were readying to implement the new farm bill. Farmers and ranchers have faced enough uncertainty over the past several months, that the last thing that they need is further delays in USDA’s functioning and delivering of services. The draft FY 2019 appropriations bills also contain much-needed additional support for several food and farm programs, funding which they can only receive if the new bills are passed – not under an extension of FY 2018 spending levels.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has been one of many vocal advocates urging Congress to stop kicking the can down the road and finally pass a FY 2019 appropriations bill. Throughout the year, NSAC has led advocacy around conservation, beginning farmer and rancher, local food, food safety, and many other priority programs administered by USDA and FDA. Both the House and Senate agriculture appropriations bills for FY 2019 included additional investments in key programs, which farms and advocates alike are eager to see materialize.
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 bills maintained a number of important program funding increases won in FY 2018. NSAC urges Congress to pass FY 2019 spending levels for these important priorities before the end of this year.
The FY 2019 agriculture spending bill is also important for another reason: the opportunity for Congress to weigh in on the Administration’s proposed relocation of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Just before the shutdown, Democratic leaders on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture introduced the Agriculture Research Integrity Act of 2018 (ARIA), legislation aimed at halting the moves. When Democrats take control of the House next year and move through the agriculture appropriations process, NSAC will be strongly encouraging them to take action against this ill-advised relocation and reorganization of core USDA research agencies. We applaud them for already making that intention clear now by introducing ARIA.
Expected Next Steps
Congress will attempt to reach a deal over the next several days in order to get the government up and running again – either by passing an additional CR that funds the government into the next Congress, or by passing an appropriations package that includes the remaining seven spending bills. Given the President’s adamancy that he will not sign a bill without funding for the border wall, it appears that the most likely outcome may be that the shutdown continues into the new year. When the new Congress takes office on January 3, the House (under Democratic control) would be able to pass the Senate’s appropriations bill, which extends FY 2018 funding without the inclusion of money for a border wall. In the meantime, the outgoing majority, bowing to the wishes of the President, will have “won” several weeks of additional chaos.
NSAC will continue to monitor ongoing negotiations, and will report on updates and their implications for sustainable agriculture priorities in the days and weeks ahead. We urge Congress and the President to pass spending levels for FY 2019, including critical increases for sustainable agriculture priorities, as quickly as possible.
Categories: Budget and Appropriations