April 7, 2017
As Members of Congress prepare to take a pause from the busy legislative session and head home for a two-week recess, one thing they – as well as business, consumer, and nonprofit organizations across the country – were likely prioritizing was sending their completed budget requests for fiscal year (FY) 2018 to the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. This annual ritual, one of the preliminary steps in the yearlong congressional appropriations process, is an important opportunity for all stakeholders to provide input on government spending priorities. For the agriculture community, among the most important appropriations requests are those for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This year’s deadline for making budget requests was April 5.
This post highlights several actions that the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) took this week to make our priorities known to the Subcommittee.
On April 5, NSAC submitted our FY 2018 appropriations testimony. The testimony serves as a narrative outline of our budget priorities for the coming fiscal year, which include: sustainable agricultural research, natural resource conservation, beginning farmer credit, minority farmer assistance, food safety training, and rural economic development programs. In the testimony, we make special note of our strong opposition to the Trump Administration’s proposed elimination of the entire USDA rural economic growth and job creation budget (outlined in the President’s so-called “skinny budget”). We also urge the Subcommittee to not re-open the 2014 Farm Bill to make cuts to conservation program funding.
Several of NSAC’s appropriations priorities were echoed in letters from Members of Congress to the Subcommittee, as well as in sign-on letters submitted by groups around the country.
222 Organizations Call on Appropriators to Protect Conservation Funding
One of NSAC’s top priorities is to protect funding for farm bill conservation programs. Programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) have repeatedly been cut through the annual appropriations process. CSP and EQIP are the farm bill’s largest working lands conservation programs, and provide producers with critical tools that help them build soil health, defend against drought and flooding events, limit water pollution, and improve wildlife habitat.
These conservation programs have “mandatory” funding, meaning that the farm bill provides funding directly. It is NSAC and our allies’ strong believe that this funding process, painstakingly undertaken every farm bill cycle by the Agriculture Committees (the authorizers), should not be upended through backdoor appropriations maneuvers. For years, congressional appropriators have cut away at these programs through a method called Changes in Mandatory Program Spending (CHIMPs). The money stolen through this mechanism is then spent on other programs, meaning there is no actual net savings to the overall budget, only a net loss for conservation programs.
In a strong showing of support this week, 222 organizations across the country signed on to a letter organized by NSAC urging the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees to respect the funding decisions made by the Agriculture Committees during the 2014 Farm Bill process. The letter urges appropriators to support the resilience of American agriculture by rejecting any funding cuts to farm bill conservation programs.
The letter also responds to the President’s recently released “skinny budget” and urges appropriators to reject any proposed cuts to conservation technical assistance, which provides the on-the-ground support for the implementation of NRCS conservation programs. The President’s skinny budget called for privatizing technical assistance delivery, a move that would leave farmers and ranchers with little or no conservation planning help while bringing implementation of farm bill conservation programs to a halt.
Support for Minority, Limited Resource, and Veteran Farmers
Another priority for NSAC in FY 2018 is increased funding for the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (also known as the Section 2501 program). To date, 2501 is the only farm bill program solely dedicated to addressing the unique needs of minority and underserved farmers and ranchers. The program invests in our nation’s community-based organizations, land grant universities, and cooperative extension, helping them develop and implement innovative outreach and technical assistance programs designed to reach historically underserved producers.
2501 was expanded as part of the 2014 Farm Bill to also include military veterans; however the bill simultaneously slashed mandatory program funding in half. NSAC and 70 allied organizations across the country sent a letter urging appropriators to restore 2501 funding to its previous level by providing $10 million in discretionary funding in FY 2018.
Members of Congress Show Strong Support for Conservation and the 2501 Program
This week, members of Congress, including many members of the House Agriculture Committee, also expressed strong support for conservation programs and the 2501 program.
Representatives Marcia Fudge (D-OH) and Dave Loebsack (D-IA) led a “Dear Colleague” letter urging appropriators to protect farm bill conservation funding. Thirty-four members signed the letter, including eight members of the Agriculture Committee.
Representative Fudge is the Ranking Member of the House Agriculture Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee, and will play a critical role in determining conservation policy in the next farm bill. The letter’s co-signers reflect the same bipartisan support for conservation programs that has been expressed during initial farm bill hearings.
Representatives Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) and Ben Lujan (D-NM) led on another Dear Colleague requesting $10 million in funding for the 2501 program. Thirty members of Congress, including 11 members of the House Agriculture Committee, signed on to the 2501 letter.
NSAC thanks Representatives Fudge, Loebsack, Lujan Grisham, and Lujan for their leadership on these important statements of support.
Appropriations and the Budget in the Months Ahead
The closing of the House Agriculture Appropriation Subcommittee’s acceptance of budget requests marks an important first step in determining funding levels for FY 2018. However, this is only the beginning of a long process, and there will be much more to watch for, as well as opportunities for action, later this year.
On the Senate side, the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee’s deadline is not until May 12, so there are still opportunities to weigh in with those legislators.
The country is also still waiting to see the full FY 2018 budget request from the White House; the “skinny budget” released last month was just the Administration’s first foray into the budget battlefield. The full budget request is rumored to appear in mid-May, well past the normal timing for the President’s budget request. After they have received the President’s budget, congressional appropriators will take that, and the hundreds of other budget proposals they receive from Members of Congress and stakeholders, and will draft the actual funding bills for FY 2018.
As part of this process, Congress will also pass its own budget resolution, a document that sets the macro funding levels by which the appropriators must abide. Normally the budget resolution is finished by mid-April, but will come much later this year. No firm date has been set, though many expect it to come after Congress receives the Administration’s proposal. Congress does not have to abide by the President’s requests, and in fact rarely does, but they do generally need input from all the agencies prior to finalizing their own plans.
As if there weren’t enough moving pieces around setting funding levels for FY2018, appropriators are also running out of time to fund the government for the rest of FY 2017. The government is currently operating under a continuing resolution (CR), which freezes spending for everything the government does at FY 2016 levels, through April 28, 2017.
Congress will only have a few days when they get back from this two-week recess to meet the FY 2017 budget deadline before funding expires. Big questions include whether they will ignore the President’s call for big cuts in domestic programs (likely), approve final bills for FY 2017 or simply keep much of the government operating on a CR (another CR is possible, though we hope not likely), and whether they will pass something by the April 28th deadline or let the government shut down (never say never).
Stay tuned for additional updates as NSAC continues to work closely with Congress to ensure that critical sustainable agricultural research, natural resource conservation, beginning farmer credit, minority farmer assistance, food safety training, and rural economic development programs receive robust funding during the upcoming appropriations cycle.
Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Budget and Appropriations, Commodity, Crop Insurance & Credit Programs, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill, Food Safety, Local & Regional Food Systems, Research, Education & Extension, Rural Development