March 22, 2012
On Tuesday, March 20, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) delivered its fiscal year (FY) 2013 agriculture appropriations testimony to the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. The testimony includes NSAC’s FY 2013 appropriations requests for critical conservation, rural development, marketing, research, credit, and beginning and minority farmer programs. We will deliver matching funding requests to the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee next week.
Senators have until March 30 to deliver food and agriculture funding request letters to Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI), Chairman of the Subcommittee. The deadline for member letters in the House was March 20.
While there is no set timeline, both subcommittees are likely to mark up their respective agriculture appropriations bills in the next few months.
House and Senate Budget Committee Action on Discretionary Spending
On Wednesday, March 21, the House Budget Committee passed its FY 2013 budget resolution, which sets a top-line funding cap for discretionary spending in FY 2013. The budget resolution caps discretionary spending at $1.028 trillion, which is $19 billion less than the top-line number that Congress agreed upon for FY 2013 in the Budget Control Act of 2011. That Act set up a series of automatic cuts, known as “sequestration,” which would begin to take effect in January 2013. The House budget resolution aims to replace the sequester for FY 2013 (but not for the following nine years) with an alternative set of cuts, including the extra $19 billion generated by further reducing the discretionary spending cap and much larger savings from mandatory programs, including Medicaid, Medicare, and the farm bill.
If the House passes the budget resolution, which they are expected to do next week, the House Appropriations Committee will have to conform to this extremely limiting spending cap. The next step for the House Appropriations Committee will be to use the top-line cap to set sub-allocations (also known as 302b allocations) for the various appropriations subcommittees, including the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. The sub-allocation will determine how much money the Subcommittee has to work with when setting FY 2013 spending levels for discretionary farm bill programs.
The Senate will also be moving forward with its appropriations bills. Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND), Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, filed a “deeming resolution” on Tuesday, which allows the Appropriations Committee to begin work on its FY 2013 bills. Unlike the House, however, the Senate will use the spending cap agreed to by the House, Senate and White House in the Budget Control Act of 2011 to determine its sub-allocation to the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.
The House budget action to renege on last summer’s budget deal, assuming passage when it reaches the House floor next week as seems likely, puts the two chambers at odds over the funding bills. It thus quite possibly sets the stage for another showdown over a potential government shutdown at the end of September, this time just in advance of national elections.
House Hearings on Farm and Research Programs
Meanwhile, the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee held two hearings this week, the first on USDA’s FY 2013 budget requests for the Farm and Foreign Agricultural Service mission area, and the second on the USDA’s requests for the Research, Education, and Economics mission area.
At the first hearing, the Subcommittee raised a number of questions about the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The President’s budget requests a CRP enrollment of 30 million acres in FY2013. FSA Administrator Bruce Nelson testified that there are now 29.7 million acres in the CRP, down nearly 20 percent from FY2007. About 18 percent of the acres are in the continuous CRP conservation buffer and special wildlife practices component.
Earlier in the year, USDA announced a new highly erodible land initiative and a new grasslands, wetlands and biodiversity initiative to target enrollment of land in the continuous CRP. In addition, CRP contracts on about 6.5 million acres are scheduled to expire at the end of September 2012. USDA has opened a new CRP general sign-up, which began on March 12 and will end on April 6. The Administrator emphasized, in response to questions from Subcommittee Chairman Jack Kingston (R-GA), that CRP not only conserves resources and increases water quality but also supports recreational businesses and jobs in rural areas.
Administrator Nelson also noted that USDA suspended the CRP Transition Incentives Program (TIP) in February because over $20 million of the $25 million provided in the 2008 Farm Bill has been expended. The CRP-TIP offers two additional years of CRP payments to retiring landowners who agree to transition their expiring CRP acres to a new or socially disadvantaged farmer who enters the land into production using sustainable growing practices. Referring to CRP-TIP as a success and “a great tool” in the conservation toolbox, the Administrator noted that FSA is now reviewing about $1 million in pending requests for contracts in addition to the 1,500 contracts already obligated.
Issues concerning beginning farmers and ranchers and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers (SDA) were also covered at the hearing. In FY 2011, 63 percent of FSA direct lending, just over $1 billion, went to beginning farmers. FSA also assisted beginning farmers with an additional $735 million in credit through loan guarantees in FY 2011. Since FY 2006, FSA has increased its lending total to beginning farmers by 63 percent.
Representative Sanford Bishop (D-GA) emphasized the importance of FSA loans to socially disadvantaged farmers and requested a state-by-state breakdown of such loans. He also questioned whether the funding provided to the USDA Office of Advocacy and Outreach is sufficient and urged that the Office do more outreach.
Following the Farm and Foreign Agricultural Service hearing, the Subcommittee examined the President’s FY 2013 request for the programs that fall within USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics mission area.
A number of questions were asked about the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) and Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Representative Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) voiced her concern that only 30 percent of AFRI funding is going to the foundational program. Currently, 70 percent of AFRI grants are administered through the “challenge area” component of the Initiative. In line with Rep. Lummis’ comments, NSAC has advocated for a better balance between foundational grants and challenge area grants. Similarly, Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-GA) urged USDA to ensure that increased funding for AFRI does not come at the expense of funding for other grant programs that offer more opportunities for smaller projects to successfully compete for funding.
Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee, noted with favor that the Administration has requested money for the federal-state matching grants component of the SARE program for FY 2013. Rep. Farr asked the witnesses to explain how this component would enhance the keystone sustainable agriculture program at USDA.
The USDA witnesses at the hearing noted that the state matching grant component would allow the agency to integrate sustainable agriculture into the state experiment stations and extension service in order to serve and reach small and mid-sized farmers across the country. USDA Undersecretary of Research, Education, and Economics, Catherine Woteki, explained that there has not been any meaningful increase in funding for sustainable agriculture research in a decade. In fact, despite its $60 million farm bill authorization, the entire program was funded at just $19.2 million in FY 2012.
NSAC will continued monitor the appropriations process and will you apprised as events unfold.