February 22, 2017
The 2014 Farm Bill was the only reauthorization bill of the 114th Congress that voluntarily offered savings, an estimated $23 billion in deficit reduction over 10 years. Despite significant cuts made to farm bill conservation programs in that bill – roughly $4 billion over ten years, and more than $6 billion when sequestration is included – annual appropriations bills since 2014 have further reduced conservation spending outside of the normal farm bill process.
In recent years, it has become increasingly common for Congress to use appropriations bills as an unorthodox way to raid mandatory funding from farm bill programs in order to fill discretionary spending gaps. These backdoor cuts are known as Changes in Mandatory Program Spending (CHIMPS). The most commonly targeted programs are those that help farmers implement conservation activities on their farms, programs including the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). CSP and EQIP are the farm bill’s largest working lands conservation programs, and the primary means through which farmers, ranchers, and foresters build soil health, prepare for drought and flooding events, limit water pollution, and enhance wildlife habitat.
In addition to cuts through the annual appropriations process, farm bill mandatory spending has been targeted through a process known as budget reconciliation, which begins with the Budget Committees instructing the Agriculture Committees to cut spending. Unlike CHIMPS to conservation programs through appropriations bills, cuts proposed in recent years via reconciliation have not become law. With an eye toward upcoming budget and appropriations debates, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) recently joined with over 500 other farm, food, and conservation groups on a letter urging Congress to refrain from reopening the farm bill outside of the normal farm bill process.
Signers of the letter, which is addressed to the congressional Budget and Appropriations Committees, include a wide array of farm, conservation, anti-hunger, and rural organizations, including: the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, National Organic Coalition, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Food Research & Action Center, Feeding America, and NSAC.
Reopening the 2014 Farm Bill now through the budget or appropriations process would throw the 2018 farm bill debate into a tailspin just as it is ramping up.
FY 2017 Appropriations
Despite the significant benefits that farm bill conservation programs provide for American farmers, ranchers, and foresters, appropriations bills have repeatedly targeted them for cuts. For example, as a result of CHIMPS to CSP in FY 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was only able to enroll 25 percent of eligible applicants nationwide. As part of the not yet finished fiscal year (FY) 2017 appropriations process, the House Appropriations Committee has already approved a bill that would cut the 2017 CSP enrollment by 20 percent; it would also cut EQIP funding by roughly 13 percent. The Senate Committee-approved bill contains no cut to CSP, but does include a 12 percent cut to EQIP.
The government is currently running on a Continuing Resolution (CR), an appropriations bill that extends the prior year’s funding levels, which is set to expire on April 28, 2017. Before that date arrives, Congress and the President will have to come together on an agreement to fund the government in order to prevent government shutdown. As the FY 2017 appropriations process continues, NSAC will be working with our allies in Congress to oppose any further cuts to programs that provide crucial services to family farmers and ranchers, including CSP and EQIP.
FY 2018 Appropriations
Because the normal appropriations process is behind its regular schedule and functioning on its second CR, both FY 2017 and FY 2018 appropriations bills are being considered nearly simultaneously. While the FY 2017 appropriations bills are nearly finalized, the FY 2018 appropriations process is just getting started and will not really get moving until President Trump issues his first budget request (which could come as early as mid-March). The President’s budget request is likely to come in the form of a “skinny budget,” which will only contain topline funding levels for most agencies. A more detailed request would then likely follow later in the spring. Though it remains unclear exactly how detailed a skinny budget from President Trump will be, the consensus in D.C. is that it will propose significant cuts to programs across the federal budget. Once the President’s FY 2018 budget request is delivered to Congress, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees will decide which requests to meet and which to decline.
We currently expect that the Appropriations Committees will be accepting spending recommendations from other members of Congress and from the public through March. Once these requests are in and the Budget and Appropriations Committees have set spending caps for each of the 12 appropriations bills, the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees will begin work on their 2018 appropriations bills.
During their consideration of the 2018 budget resolution, it is likely that the House and Senate Budget Committees will instruct a selection of other committees to produce what is known as a budget reconciliation bill.
Reconciliation allows Congress to adjust revenue and spending levels in an expedited process. It does this primarily by allowing for the passage of bills with just a 50-vote threshold in the Senate (lately, most legislation in the Senate has required a 60 vote super majority to pass). Under budget reconciliation Republicans would not need to win any Democratic votes (there are currently 52 Republicans in the Senate) to pass spending bills.
Earlier this year, a 2017 budget resolution passed by both the House and Senate set up a budget reconciliation process to repeal and ultimately replace the Affordable Care Act. This spring, it is widely expected that the 2018 budget resolution will include reconciliation instructions to allow Congress to proceed with tax legislation; however, the bill may also include broader instructions covering more issue areas, including possibly farm bill issues. Yesterday’s sign on letter urges the Budget Committees to refrain from opening the farm bill outside of the normal farm bill process, which begins with hearings and typically includes multiple years of debate. Field hearings for the 2018 farm bill have already begun.
Agriculture has done its part by swallowing significant cuts and providing billions of dollars in savings in the 2014 Farm Bill. The February 21 letter, signed by more than 500 groups, affirms that the farm, food, and conservation communities are united in their opposition to Congress using the appropriations or budget processes to reopen the 2014 Farm Bill.