September 30, 2016
As the 2016 fiscal year comes to a close today, Congress is heading for the doors, and in many cases back out to the campaign trail. With a packed legislative calendar and a limited number of working days in September, Congress managed to attend to some important issues (like avoiding a government shut down, for now), while leaving many others on the back burner to resume in the “lame duck” session after the elections.
One of the final and most important pieces of business that Congress tackled before leaving town was the approval of a two-month funding bill to keep the government open beyond the end of fiscal year (FY) 2016.
On Thursday, September 29, the House and Senate passed an extension of last year’s funding levels – known on Capitol Hill as a Continuing Resolution (CR) – to keep government programs running and federal offices open until December 9. Congress will now need to pass another funding measure on or before that date in order to avoid a shutdown, which last occurred in 2013, when the government closed its doors for 16 days.
Under regular order, both the House and Senate pass twelve individual appropriations bills (e.g., agriculture, defense, energy and water) between March and September each year. The two sides then negotiate each of the bills before sending them to the President for their signature. In recent years, however, regular order has become irregular, and minute scrambling to avoid a government shutdown has become the new norm.
For FY 2017, both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have already passed their respective agriculture appropriations bills. However, neither bill has yet been considered on the floor of either chamber. By passing the CR this week Congress has given themselves a bit more time to negotiate differences between the two bills and develop a final legislative package.
What Happens Now?
When Congress returns to their desks in mid November they will have just two weeks to finalize appropriations legislation for FY 2017, and less than three weeks of working days before Members leave town for the winter holidays.
In previous years, all twelve appropriations bills have been lumped together in a single omnibus appropriations package. This may again be the case in December, or we may see a different kind of “bus” altogether – several smaller packages of two-four bills affectionately known as “minibuses”. Complicating the process further will be a push from the most conservative Members to simply extend existing funding levels again rather than passing new legislation. While that outcome is possible, it is not likely, given that Senate Democrats and appropriators on both sides of the aisle oppose it.
Whatever form the final legislation takes, the House and Senate will need to negotiate the differences between their two agriculture appropriations bills (including funding levels for key programs as well as controversial policy riders) in order to cross the finish line.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has supported portions of both the House and Senate appropriations bills, including: the House funding level for Value-Added Producer Grants; the Senate funding level for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, as well as Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers; the elimination of any re-opening of the 2014 Farm Bill to cut conservation programs; and the omission (in the case of the Senate bill) or removal of (in the House bill) any language that hinders USDA’s ability to write rules to protect livestock and poultry farmers who are producing under contract. We will continue to work with Congress to advance these priorities in the final legislative package.
NSAC will also be asking Congress to provide increased funding to address the growing backlog of operating loans within the Farm Service Agency (FSA). We are grateful that appropriators have already responded to a recent USDA reprogramming request to provide approximately $185 million to partially offset the FY 2016 shortfall. However, even with this recent reprogramming, FSA will be entering FY 2017 with an estimated $215 million shortfall in operating loans. Under FSA protocol, these backlogged applications will be funded before any new borrowers who apply after October 1 can even have their loan applications considered.
With demand for operating loans is expected to be above average due to low commodity prices, this dramatic of a shortfall is particularly problematic. If not addressed, this funding gap will leave many beginning farmers, and others who cannot be fully serviced by commercial credit under current price conditions, without the loans they need to stay in business. Congressional appropriators can address this problem, saving many farmers from serious financial distress, and we urge them to do so as soon as possible.
Child Nutrition Reauthorization
On a related legislative front and as previously reported, the Senate Agriculture Committee marked up and passed unanimously out of committee a bipartisan Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization (CNR) bill in January of 2016. Titled “Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016,” the Senate Committee bill expands summer feeding programs, increases the ability for tribal schools and feeding programs to serve culturally significant foods, and compromises on the long-running battle over nutrition standards. The bill also includes strong support for the Farm to School grant program, giving the program an increase of $5 million in annual grant funding (from $5 to $10 million per year).
Shortly before leaving town for the campaign season, the Senate Agriculture Committee spent a week and a half testing the waters to see if it could get the full Senate to consider the bill under a “unanimous consent” agreement, which would have allowed for expedited passage on the Senate floor. While they were unable to reach unanimous consent in the little time available, the bi-partisan effort did prove that there is broad support for the bill.
In order for a final CNR to make it to the President’s desk during the lame duck session, both the Senate and the House would need to pass their respective versions and then reconcile them via a conference committee. Complicating the process, however, is the House’s passage of a very controversial CNR in May of this year. Titled “Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016” (H.R. 5003), the bill passed by a 20 to 14 vote; all but one Republican voted in favor of the bill and all Democrats opposed.
The House bill contained a number of contested provisions, including restrictions to the popular Community Eligibility Program and a three-state pilot to block grant school meal programs. A broad spectrum of food, nutrition, and farm organizations opposed the bill’s passage, including the School Nutrition Association (SNA), NSAC, and the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC).
One of few bright spots in the current CNR debate is the fact that both the House and Senate bills included increased funding and positive reforms to the Farm to School program. NSAC will continue to urge Congress to reauthorize child nutrition legislation this year and build upon on the great progress that child nutrition programs, like the Farm to School initiative, have made.