September 7, 2016
Congress returns to Washington, D.C. this week with less than a month left to wrap up business for the current fiscal year (FY). Members are back in town until the end of the month, though many could leave even earlier to begin their fall campaign breaks. With so much to do in so little time, we’ve outlined two major “must-dos” for Congress to complete before the end of FY2016.
Avoid the shutdown
At the top of Congress’ long to-do list is passing a continuing appropriations resolution (CR) to extend government funding beyond September 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
Under regular order, both the House and Senate pass twelve individual appropriations bills, which are broken out by issue area. The two sides then negotiate each of the bills before sending them to the President for his signature. In recent years, however, regular order has become irregular, and we’ve gotten increasingly used to Congress’ last minute scrambling to avoid a government shutdown. Nowadays Congress regularly fails to pass individual appropriations bills, including agriculture bills, before the end of the fiscal year. This failure has led them to rely upon continuing resolutions, followed generally by omnibus appropriations measures that combine all twelve bills into one must pass measure.
For FY2017, both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have already passed their respective agriculture appropriations bills. However, neither bill has been considered on the floor of the House and Senate, and now time for that has run out.
To avoid a government shutdown on October 1, Congress will likely pass a CR to extend current funding levels. Even the CR is not without controversy, however. Currently, debate is heating up over how long the CR will last – through early to mid-December, or into the next Presidency (through March, or even for the entire year).
In an effort to prevent any new spending and to limit decision making during the lame duck session, the most conservative wing of the Republican Party (known as the Freedom Caucus) had been urging leadership to pass a longer term CR that lasts into the next Administration. In contrast, most appropriators (including senior Republican leaders) prefer a shorter term CR that would allow them to finish the work of passing a new appropriations package for FY2017.
Last week, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) stated that Senate Democrats are unified in their support for a CR that runs through December only. The Senate requires 60 votes to end debate on a measure, so despite being in the minority, Senate Democrats hold considerable power in this debate.
Regardless of whether the CR lasts until December or into the new year, Congress will need to pass a second bill – either an omnibus appropriations package for FY2017 or another CR – in order to fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) strongly supports the notion that Congress should do its job and pass annual appropriations bills on time (by September). In cases where this cannot be achieved, Congress should only consider short term CRs that provide enough time to finish the job and pass the annual appropriations measure.
We will continue to urge Congress to pass a short term CR and adopt an omnibus appropriations bill in December. We have supported portions of both the House and Senate versions of the appropriations bill, 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; 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.
Reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act
Congress revisits child nutrition program legislation every five years in a single omnibus bill known as the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, or Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization (CNR). The 2010 CNR (also known as The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act) expired on September 30, 2015, meaning we have already gone a near full year past the reauthorization deadline. Though child nutrition programs are maintained at their current funding levels as long as the government is funded, without a new bill, Congress is unable to build upon the success of many critical programs – including the Farm to School grant program.
As previously reported, the Senate Agriculture Committee marked up and passed unanimously out of committee a bipartisan 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).
Unfortunately, the Senate CNR process stalled out this spring as the Senate Agriculture Committee and the Congressional Budget Office struggled to address discrepancies in program cost estimates. Some in the Capitol have suggested that the Senate Agriculture Committee is working to broker a deal around a modified version of their bill, maintaining the its core priorities and the strong bipartisan support from members. If the rumored deal is successful, the Senate CNR bill could see floor time in the coming weeks.
Even if the Senate Agriculture Committee is able to address their bill’s budget issues and bring it to the Senate floor for passage, the likelihood of a final bill making it to President Obama’s desk remains slim. For that to happen, the House would also need to pass their version of the CNR, and then reconcile it with the Senate bill via a conference committee (or adopt and pass the Senate’s version). Both of those options seem highly unlikely, given the House’s passage of their own, very controversial, CNR bill 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, and has united many unlikely bedfellows in opposition to its passage – including the School Nutrition Association, NSAC, and leading nutrition and anti-hunger groups. Given such strong stakeholder opposition during a particularly contentious election year, it is very unlikely that the House passed committee bill will see floor time in September.
If there is not a major break-through between now and the end of the year, the CNR legislative process will start over in January of 2017 with a new Congress. One of very few potential bright spots in such a scenario is that both the House and Senate bills included increased funding and positive reforms to the Farm to School program, suggesting that such bipartisan, bicameral support would continue to hold even if the bill isn’t reconsidered until 2017.
NSAC will continue to urge Congress to adopt a CNR this year and move forward on the progress that child nutrition programs, like the Farm to School initiative, have made.