April 19, 2019
Members of Congress headed home this week for a two-week recess, taking a pause from the busy legislative session. In the weeks leading up to recess, Members (as well as food, agriculture, and other advocacy organizations) were rushing to send their complete funding requests for fiscal year (FY) 2020 to the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees. This initial submission of requests and recommendations, one of the first 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, the most important appropriations are for programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The following post highlights the appropriations advocacy efforts of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), key takeaways from recent appropriations hearings, and what’s next in the budget and appropriations process for FY 2020.
At the beginning of April, NSAC delivered our FY 2020 appropriations testimony to the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees. The testimony serves as a narrative outline of our appropriations priorities for the coming fiscal year (beginning on October 1st), which include: sustainable agriculture research, training and technical assistance for beginning and socially disadvantaged producers, food safety training, farmer stress assistance, local and regional food systems, value-added agriculture, rural development, farm credit, and conservation financial and technical assistance. In our testimony, we also urged appropriators to prohibit the proposed relocation and reorganization of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).
Several of NSAC’s priorities were also echoed in letters from Members of Congress, as well as in organizational support letters submitted by leading farm, rural, and conservation groups across the country. In the subsequent sections, we highlight these advocacy efforts that amplify NSAC’s top sustainable agriculture funding priorities.
Members of Congress, including many members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, expressed strong support for NSAC priorities through joint letters to the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees. These “Dear Colleagues” play an important role in showing Congress’ strong support for funding sustainable agriculture programs.
Representatives Dave Loebsack (D-IA), Glenn Thompson (R-PA), Marcia Fudge (D-OH), Don Bacon (R-NE), Cindy Axne (D-IA), and Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) led a Dear Colleague letter urging appropriators to protect farm bill conservation funding in FY 2020. Nearly 80 members signed on to the letter in the House, with strong representation from the Agriculture Committee. This robust support reflects the commitment of Members to ensure that agriculture spending legislation protects mandatory funding for conservation programs.
For the last two fiscal years, Congress has rejected cuts to conservation programs’ mandatory funding through the appropriations process. Protecting this funding is especially important as USDA moves forward with implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill, which was signed into law earlier this year. A conservation funding letter in the Senate also made the rounds. The Senate letter was led by Senators Michael Bennett (D-CO) and Christopher Coons (D-DE) and included 33 co-signers; the Senate letter made the same ask of appropriators as the House version.
Socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers:
Representatives Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), Terri Sewell (D-AL), and Antonio Delgado (D-NY) led a letter requesting additional funding for the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) program, which was newly created in the 2018 Farm Bill. FOTO streamlines existing efforts to support beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers, by combining two long-standing programs that serve those farmers. In addition to requesting $10 million to restore funding to historic levels, the House letter also requests discretionary funding for two new pilot programs authorized in the new farm bill related to heirs property issues and data on farmland ownership trends. An additional letter on the Senate side, led by Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) echoed the request for additional funding for FOTO in FY 2020.
Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network:
Representatives Tom Emmer (R-MN), Dave Loebsack (D-IA), Roger Marshall (R-KS), and Antonio Delgado (D-NY) led a letter requesting $10 million in funding for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) for FY 2020. Financial risk, volatile markets, unpredictable weather, and heavy workloads can all place a significant strain on farmers’ ranchers’ and farmworkers’ mental and emotional well-being. The funding will build on $2 million provided in FY 2019 to provide support to farmers and ranchers as they endure increasing financial and mental stress. The same request was echoed by a Dear Colleague in the Senate, led by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA).
Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Rodney Davis (R-IL), and Ron Kind (D-WI), co-chairs of the House Organic Caucus, led a letter with several FY 2020 requests that are relevant for the organic community, including the Organic Transitions Integrated Research Program, the National Organic Program, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives, and bill language directing USDA to publish the final rule on organic livestock. These asks align with several of NSAC’s priority, including our campaign to secure $45 million for SARE in FY 2020.
In addition to the Dear Colleague letters and individually submitted requests and testimony, advocacy organizations have also come together to demonstrate broad support through organizational “sign-on letters”. Sign on letters feature multiple advocacy organizations that collectively support a given program, policy, or priority. Sign-on letters on which NSAC has joined are detailed below.
More than 140 farm, conservation, and wildlife groups sent a letter to appropriators in early April 2019, urging them to protect conservation funding in FY 2020. The letter also asks appropriators to provide strong funding for Conservation Technical Assistance, which provides the support necessary for the delivery of conservation programs and planning in the field.
Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network:
Over forty agriculture and rural groups signed on to a letter asking for full funding ($10 million for FY 2020) for FRSAN in order to meet the needs of farmers and ranchers as they endure increasing financial and mental stress.
Several coalition letters were delivered to request robust funding for key agricultural research programs. Leading agricultural and research organizations requested increased support in FY 2020 for the major competitive grants programs that support research, education, extension, and outreach. This request aligned with several of NSAC’s top priorities, including increased support for SARE, the Food Safety Outreach Program, and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. Additional letters were also delivered requesting strong funding for the rest of USDA’s Research Mission Area, including the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), and USDA’s statistical agencies including the National Agricultural Statistics Service and the Economic Research Service.
Opposition to the Proposed ERS/NIFA Relocation:
NSAC joined with leading research and agriculture organizations in urging appropriators to oppose the proposed relocation of ERS and NIFA, as well as the proposed realignment of ERS. The request to appropriators to prohibit this move is in line with a bill introduced by House Democrats, including all agriculture appropriators.
Conservation, energy, and farm groups urged appropriators to provide $20 million in discretionary funding for the Rural Energy for America Program, which drives renewable energy efficiency investments benefiting farmers, ranchers, and rural small businesses across the country.
NSAC joined organizations across the country in requesting funding for the Office of Urban Agriculture and the Urban Agriculture Data Collection Initiative. The 2018 Farm Bill included important reforms and opportunities for urban agriculture, and this funding would build on the investments and innovations provided in the farm bill.
The week before Congress left for recess was a busy one for agriculture appropriations, with three subcommittee hearings held on important issues related to critical food and agriculture funding. The House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees each heard from USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue on the Administration’s FY 2020 Budget Request. The House Subcommittee also held a hearing on sustainable agriculture practices, which presented an opportunity to discuss issues related to climate change and agriculture.
Each year, the first step of the annual appropriations process is for the President to release a budget request to Congress that presents the framework of the White House’s vision for the next fiscal year. This year, NSAC joined many other food and farm advocates in voicing strong opposition to the President’s proposal to slash funding for critical sustainable agriculture programs. Thankfully, the real power of the purse resides with Congress, and not the President. These recent hearings, therefore, presented an important opportunity for agriculture appropriators to question and challenge the Administration’s proposed cuts.
The House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee was the first up to question Secretary Perdue. After hearing a statement from the Secretary, Members posed their questions and concerns. Chairman Sanford Bishop (D-GA) spent the majority of his time focused on the proposed relocation of ERS and NIFA, a move that the Subcommittee Chairman vociferously opposed. NSAC thanks the Chairman for his leadership in pushing back against the Administration’s proposal. If allowed to move forward, this relocation and reorganization would be detrimental to the capacity, accessibility, and effectiveness of our leading agricultural research institutions.
Two days after the House hearing, Secretary Perdue returned to the Hill to visit with the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. Several NSAC priorities were given airtime during the hearing thanks to the leadership of Chairman John Hoeven (R-ND) and Ranking Member Jeff Merkley (D-OR). We thank the Chairman, Ranking Member, and all those who spoke up against the proposed cuts in the President’s budget, which would certainly come at the expense of agriculture and rural communities.
Lastly, the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee also held a hearing on “Economic Opportunities for Farmers through Sustainable Agriculture Practices.” NSAC thanks Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) for her leadership in calling for the hearing, and for being such a strong champion for farmers working to advance climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. Witnesses at the hearing stressed the importance of Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservation programs in building soil health, and the role that they play in serving as buffers during adverse weather, minimizing the impact farmers may feel during a drought or flood.
When asked about the proposed cuts to conservation programs in the President’s budget, NRCS Acting Associate Chief Kevin Norton responded that it indeed was not possible for NRCS to do more with less. As conversations on climate change and agriculture continue, NSAC will continue to advocate that farmers have the technical and financial support they need to adapt to the pressures of a changing climate, as well as play an active role in mitigation through carbon sequestration and building soil health.
While the deadlines for Members and organizations to submit their initial funding requests to the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees have now come and gone, there’s still much more work left to do to get FY 2020 funding bills passed before the September 30th deadline. When Congress returns from recess later this month, they will begin the process of moving forward draft bills out of the appropriations subcommittees (including agriculture), and then on to the full committees. The major hurdle that stands in the way of this process is the lack of a deal on overall discretionary spending levels, which provide the framework for the entire appropriations process.
Budget talks to strike a two-year budget deal are just getting started, but a resolution is necessary in order to prevent billions of dollars in spending cuts from being enacted over the next two years. In 2011, Congress passed a law that set overall discretionary spending caps for ten years. The annual spending caps are highly restrictive, making it extremely difficult for congressional appropriators to finalize and pass appropriations legislation. In an effort to smooth the path for appropriations legislation, Congress has raised the caps a number of times. The last time the caps were raised was two years ago, which increased overall spending levels for FY 2018 and FY 2019.
If Congress is unable to pass a budget caps deal (which would then need to be signed by the President, who has thus far threatened to oppose), the likelihood of paralyzing the entire appropriations process and another government shutdown increases significantly.
Though Subcommittees are expected to continue moving forward with their individual spending bills, they are doing so in spite of the fact that the major hurdle of overall budget caps remains unresolved. This means that they are writing bills to imaginary topline numbers, and will be forced to re-adjust the bills they write to match the actual numbers once they are finalized. Additionally, Congress is also up against the debt ceiling later this summer, which makes the upcoming debate to solve these overall funding issues even more political and fractious.
NSAC will provide further detail and analysis on the budget and appropriations process, including what’s at stake for sustainable agriculture priorities in the weeks ahead.