March 18, 2016
On Thursday, March 17, 33 Senators delivered a letter to the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, urging them to oppose cuts to conservation programs in fiscal year (FY) 2017. Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Chris Coons (D-DE) steered the effort, as they have done in previous years. Included among the 33 signatories was Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and the second and third most senior Democrats in the Senate, Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
“As your subcommittee considers its fiscal year (FY) 2017 appropriations bill, we write to request that you support full and mandatory funding for Farm Bill conservation programs,” the letter begins.
The letter was delivered as the Subcommittee considers the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) FY2017 Budget Request, which proposes no cuts to farm bill conservation programs, including the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) strongly supports the position of USDA and the Senators who signed today’s letter. Funding for farm bill conservation programs should be dealt with by the House and Senate Agriculture Committees during the farm bill debate, and not opportunistically raided via the annual appropriations process.
“These programs are increasingly important to the long-term economic viability of family farms as producers face agricultural and environmental challenges including droughts, wildfires, and floods,” the Senators write. “Protecting the health of the soil, improving water quantity and quality, and providing robust wildlife habitat will be critical to our collective future as our growing population increases pressure on private agricultural lands.”
The Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate, including the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees, are currently considering funding requests from members of Congress, individuals and non-governmental organizations, as well as the Administration. NSAC was among the organizations submitting requests this month; we recently concluded a month-long series of farmer fly-ins, which allowed farmers and “ag-vocates” to tell their stories of conservation program success directly to their legislators.
Nearly all conservation program funding authorized in the farm bill is “mandatory” funding, which means that the money is provided and spent according to the authorizing bill (the farm bill). Commodity subsidies, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (formerly known as food stamps), and conservation programs are all examples of mandatory spending in the farm bill.
Traditionally Congressional appropriators deal only with annual discretionary funding, and not mandatory funding. However, there is a backdoor mechanism that appropriators have been increasingly utilizing to tamper with mandatory funding levels – Changes in Mandatory Program Spending (CHIMPS). CHIMPS allows appropriators to cut mandatory spending in order to free up additional dollars to spend on discretionary programs.
The recently passed 2014 Farm Bill consolidated numerous conservation programs and cut conservation spending by $4 billion. Automatic annual cuts will reduce conservation funding by another $2 billion over ten years. Yet despite these already extreme reductions, appropriators have continued to target conservation programs for additional cuts.
“As a result of the changes in mandatory programs spending included in FY 2015 appropriations legislation, only 23 percent of eligible EQIP applicants and 28 percent of eligible CSP applicants were able to enroll nationwide,” the letter explains. “Half of the states in the U.S. turned away 75 percent or more of eligible CSP and EQIP applicants in FY 2015.”
NSAC commends Senators Bennet, Coons, and the other 31 Senators who signed on to the letter, voicing their support for America’s farmers, ranchers, and foresters, as well as the natural resources upon which we all depend.
As the FY2017 appropriations process progresses, we will continue to monitor, report on, and urge against cuts to mandatory conservation spending.