On Monday evening, September 10, the House Rules Committee posted the Continuing Resolution (CR) agreed upon by congressional leaders to fund the government for the next six months. The bill is expected to be voted on in the House on Thursday and in the Senate after that. The overall goal is to avoid a government shutdown, punt real decisions into early next year (well after the start of the new fiscal year on October 1), and allow Congress to hurry home to campaign for reelection.
The CR would allow most discretionary government programs to increase over their Fiscal Year 2012 levels by a mechanistic 0.612 percent. (So much for the deliberative process of assessing the value of programs on a merit basis and for adjusting appropriations based on pressing needs and new directions!)
The CR would provide an extra boost to a very select handful of programs, including forest fire fighting, cyber security, nuclear weapons modernization, and veteran benefits, among others. The CR would also allow the food stamp program to continue to meet program needs in the new fiscal year.
The key question for farm conservation was how the CR would treat the Conservation Stewardship Program and three programs (Wetlands Reserve, Grassland Reserve, and Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative) without authority to spend money after September 30.
We now have the answer and it is not pretty. In fact, it is a travesty. Rather than make a few small adjustments, at no extra net cost to the government, and allow all the programs to enroll new farm acres in 2013, the leadership team that put the CR together chose instead to prevent any new enrollments in any of the four programs in 2013.
For the three programs without authority to spend money at least, they could still be bailed out if a new five-year farm bill is approved by Congress later this year. The prospects of a new farm bill this year may be fading, but it is still possible for Congress to return after the elections and get its farm bill work completed. In the pending farm bills, those particular programs are merged and melded into new amalgamated programs, but in their new forms they would at least still be able to enroll new acres.
For the CSP, however, even a new farm bill could not undo the harm created by the effect of the CR capping the program at its 2012 levels. At that level, there will only be money available to pay for existing contracts, and not to enroll more farmers in the program. The best a new farm bill could do would be to allow greater acreage enrollment levels than currently contemplated for the years following 2013.
The CR also repeats cuts to other farm bill conservation programs contained in the FY 2012 appropriations act. These include a $350 million cut to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, a $50 million cut to the Farmland Protection Program, and a $35 million cut to the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program. Unlike the other four programs, these three programs and a few smaller ones would still have 2013 enrollments, just at somewhat lower levels than contemplated by the farm bill.
The net effect of the CR, in addition to shutting down new enrollments for some very important conservation programs, will also be to reduce the budget baseline for the conservation title of the new farm bill assuming the bill does not get completed this year. This will make the bill that much harder to finalize next year if it does not get done in the lame duck session in December.
All of these negative outcomes could have been easily prevented. NSAC and other groups have been pushing for minor changes to the CR that, on a totally cost neutral basis, would have allowed USDA to hold enrollments for the four programs in 2013.
For lack of creativity and courage, the available win-win solution has been turned by congressional leaders into a lose-lose disaster. And the losers are not only the farmers who will be denied access to programs to help them preserve natural resources and protect the environment. Also lost are new opportunities to amend farming systems and land uses to more effectively deal with drought and other extreme weather conditions to help preserve our future food security.