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Budget Resolutions Set Stage for Appropriations; Farm Bill Re-Opening Still a Possibility

March 27, 2015


This week the House and Senate both passed their respective budget resolutions for fiscal year (FY) 2016. The House passed its budget on Wednesday, March 25 while the Senate passed its budget in the wee hours of Friday morning.

Budget resolutions provide the blueprint for the appropriations process that will take place in the coming months. They set binding top line spending caps for the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

The House budget resolution, which passed 228-199, busts the strict cap that Congress set in 2011 for defense spending by adding $38 billion to the Oversees Contingency Operations (OCO) account. The increase in defense spending has a direct impact on the deficit because it comes without any parallel spending reduction or “offset”. The OCO, however, is treated as emergency spending and thus outside of the budget caps.

The Senate-passed budget contains a similar provision, though, unlike the House, offsets this increase with theoretical defense cuts in future years.

Hence, barring further changes in the upcoming House-Senate conference to produce a final budget resolution, the outcome of the budget resolution for the appropriations bills coming up for a vote this summer and fall is that very tight budget caps and enforcement rules remain in place for domestic programs, while defense programs get significant wiggle room through the emergency spending budget gimmick included in both resolutions.

No Democrats voted in support of the House-passed budget, and 17 Republicans voted against it, including House Agriculture Committee members Rick Crawford (R-AR) and Chris Gibson (R-NY).

The House voted down the Democratic alternative budget resolution by a vote of 160-264, with 22 Democrats joining all Republicans in opposition. The House also voted down a version of the GOP budget that did not increase defense spending above the caps on a 132-294 vote, with 54 percent of Republicans voting in favor and 46 percent opposed.

The Senate budget resolution passed at 3 AM Friday morning on a nearly straight party line vote of 52-46. Presidential candidates Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY), however, voted no.

Farm Bill

In addition to setting out the spending caps for FY 2016 appropriations, the House budget uses the “budget reconciliation” procedure to direct the Agriculture Committee to cut $1 billion over ten years from the programs under its jurisdiction (i.e., the farm bill). Budget reconciliation instructions require authorizing committees to meet a certain level of deficit reduction by a certain date. However, they do not dictate where those cuts should come from; that is left to the authorizing committees to decide.

Unlike the House budget resolution, the Senate budget resolution does not contain reconciliation instructions. As the House and Senate conference their respective budget resolutions, NSAC will be urging congressional negotiators to adopt the Senate proposal not to include budget reconciliation instructions to the Agriculture Committees. If they are included, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees will quickly have to fashion bills that re-open the 2014 Farm Bill and cut funding.

Test Votes

During its 15-hour debate on Thursday and Friday, the Senate voted on loads of non-binding “messaging” amendments. Senators may point back to a vote on a messaging amendment during future funding debates to demonstrate support for a real vote, perhaps to support or oppose attaching a policy rider to an appropriations bill (e.g., to prevent EPA from moving forward with its clean water rule), or for funding a particular priority or supporting a particular tax provision. Several of these messaging amendments were relevant to agriculture and conservation.

Clean Water

By a vote of 59-40, the Senate passed an amendment by Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) to show support for tying the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in implementing its clean water rule, known as the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule. Senator Cruz was absent for the vote but is presumed to be a supporter, giving a lift to anti-clean water forces as, with 60 votes at some critical point later this year, enough votes might be available to break a filibuster by clean water supporters.

Five Democrats joined all Republicans in support of the Barrasso amendment. Those Democrats were Senators Donnelly (D-IN), Heitkamp (D-ND), Klobuchar (D-MN), Manchin (D-WV), and McCaskill (D-MO).

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, offered a side-by-side amendment, which unlike Sen. Barrasso’s amendment, would not prohibit EPA from defining which water bodies are regulated under the Clean Water Act. Instead, it would give Congress the flexibility to “clarify the scope of the Clean Water Act to provide certainty for landowners or rural communities, or preserving existing exemptions for agriculture, ranching, or forestry, or to rely on the scientific evidence of impacts on water quality of different types of water bodies.” The Stabenow amendment passed 99-0.

Climate Change

Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) introduced an amendment to recognize that climate change is real, caused in part by human activity, and that Congress should act to sharply reduce emissions that failed to pass with a vote of 49-50. Although Senators Ayotte (R-NH), Collins (R-ME), Graham (R-SC), Kirk (R-IL), and Portman (R-OH) crossed party lines (as did Senators Heitkamp (D-ND) and Manchin (D-WV) in reverse direction), this vote does provide some hope that reality is slowly closing in on a majority vote.

Faring better, perhaps, was EPA’s Clean Power Plan. A 57-43 vote established that Republicans do not have the numbers to block a filibuster on a vote later this year to prevent the EPA rules from going into effect. Mitch McConnell’s nonbinding amendment would prevent the EPA from barring highway funds for states not in compliance with the Clean Power Plan. Three Democrats voted with the majority (Donnelly, Manchin, and Heitkamp), but that still did not bring McConnell to the 60 votes he needs to survive a filibuster.

Also approved was a messaging amendment addressing human-induced climate change through increased use of clean energy, efficiency, and carbon reductions (53-47). It passed with all Democrats plus seven Republicans (Senators Ayotte, Collins, Graham, Heller, Kirk, Murkowski, and Portman).

Introduced in response to the Governor of Florida directing government officials to stop using the terms “climate change” or “global warming”, an amendment by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) to prevent federal agencies from censoring official communications regarding climate change fell to a point of order after a 51-49 vote, though Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) joined Nelson in supporting the amendment.

Estate Taxes

On a nearly straight party line vote of 54-46, the Senate passed a messaging amendment offered by Senator John Thune (R-SD) to repeal the estate tax. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) joined Democrats in opposition, while Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) joined Republicans in support.

Were a real amendment enacted in the future to repeal the estate tax, it would increase wealth and income inequality in the country as a whole and spur a more rapid consolidation of US farmland into fewer and fewer hands, to the detriment of a family farm system of agriculture.


Categories: Budget and Appropriations, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill


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