NSAC's Blog

Some Critical Farm Bill Programs Come to a Screeching Halt in 10 Days

September 20, 2013

With the House having passed a farm bill nutrition title this week, there is renewed hope that there may yet be a new five-year farm bill this year.  There are multiple steps before getting to a final bill, and a number of impacts because of the delayed process in the House.  Top among the impacts is that a number of programs will come to a screeching halt on October 1.

Farm Bill Conference

NSAC strongly supports the House and Senate getting together quickly to try to work out the details of a final, comprehensive new farm bill.  In the absence of details about the final bill, we cannot, of course, at this point say we will ultimately support passage of a new, final bill.  As we have said for months, between the House- and Senate-passed measures, the raw ingredients exist for a decent final bill and for a terrible final bill.  But clearly there is no way to get to a decent and supportable final bill without starting the process, and on that score and that score only, the House action this week was a good thing.

There are also, we should note, still more hurdles before a House-Senate conference can begin.  Chief among them is an agreement or vote on some type of parliamentary maneuver next week on the House floor to re-join the farm-only farm bill and the nutrition-only farm bill into a single bill to take to conference.  Given the multitude of procedural hurdles the farm bill has faced in the last two years, we take nothing for granted anymore.  But hopefully the remarriage of the nutrition bill into the farm bill goes off without a hitch.  The re-joined bill would then be sent to the Senate, where the House language would be struck and replaced with the Senate language, the Senate would reappoint its conferees, and then the bill would be sent back to the House.  Then the House would appoint its conferees.  So, if everything goes smoothly, the conference could then start by sometime in early October.

We hope a conference begins as quickly as possible.  But one thing that is clear is that it will not start, and certainly will not end, before the current farm bill extension expires on September 30.  The point of this post is to review what farm bill expiration this year means in the near term.

The place to start that discussion is with the oft-repeated point made by House and Senate farm bill leaders that there is still plenty of time left before the impact of farm bill expiration is felt.  We respectfully disagree.

Programs that Expire on October 1

What is meant by the ‘plenty of time left’ comment is that the make or break moment for the farm commodity programs does not come until the end of the year for dairy and next spring for grain and cotton.  That is true, but it is also a very commodity program-centric view of the farm bill.

There are real and immediate impacts that result from Congress’ decision to neglect its duty and allow the existing farm bill extension to expire on October 1.  Particular conservation programs, including the Conservation Reserve Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program, will be shut down at the end of this month with respect to any new enrollments.  So too will almost all of the farm bill-funded agricultural export programs.  Also falling into the shut down mode will be the Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program.  These same programs were also shut down last year from October 1 until January 2 of this year when the nine-month farm bill extension was signed into law.  (See end of post for additional details about expiring programs.)

There is no need for this to happen other than congressional intransigence and dysfunction.  Under normal procedures, these programs would be kept alive through either a short-term farm bill extension or, more easily, via targeted provisions in a short-term government funding bill.  They would then continue without interruption once the new five-year farm bill gets passed and signed into law.  However, the new normal on Capitol Hill is to live and act by crisis and to not take care of even the most basic, easily achieved functions of good governance.

As a result, programs start and stop and then start again, and the administrative agencies waste time and resources dealing with crisis management, to say nothing of the farmers and companies that can no longer access the programs.  Landowners seeking wetland restoration agreements will be at least temporarily turned away, with the timing of some land deals resulting in a permanent loss of the restoration opportunity.  Farmers seeking to place riparian buffer strips to stop polluted runoff will be told to wait until next year.  Fresh, nutritious local food will not get to seniors directly from farmers.  Export deals will be postponed and at least some of those opportunities may be lost if other sellers are found in the meantime.  All for the lack of a simple couple-sentence, common sense addition to the pending government funding bill.

Beyond the conservation, export, and nutrition programs that are just ten days away from being shut down again, an even bigger problem remains unresolved for a second straight year.  The dozens of programs that received farm bill funding under previous farm bills and receive renewed funding under one or both of the pending Senate-passed and House-passed farm bills this year but that were left out of the nine-month farm bill extension at the start of this calendar year will still be stranded come October 1.  Stranded for FY 2013, they will remain stranded at least for the first few months of the new fiscal year.

These still-stranded programs include major USDA programs for beginning farmers, minority farmers, specialty crop farmers, organic farmers, value-added farm enterprises, rural small business, and renewable energy and energy conservation.  This intolerable situation will be the subject of an upcoming NSAC blog series that will commence next week.

Additional Farm Bill Expiration Details

The programs that face almost certain shutdown on October 1 are farm bill programs that receive mandatory farm bill funding that are not permanently authorized and funded.  Crop insurance subsidies have permanent funding that will continue to be spent without Congress lifting a finger.  The SNAP or food stamp program does require additional congressional action to keep flowing, but that action – extension of authority to spend via the appropriations bill – was accomplished in last year’s continuing resolution and is included once again in the new short-term continuing resolution for FY 2014 that was approved by the House on Friday morning and sent to the Senate for action next week.

Some conservation programs, including the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, were extended through FY 2014 by the appropriations bill passed by Congress for FY 2012.  That action was taken in order to prevent conservation budget cuts included in that bill from triggering massive reductions in future conservation spending in the new five-year farm bill.  So, for this year at least, those working lands conservation programs will still be open for business.

Commodity programs do not terminate with farm bill expiration, but rather revert to the provisions of so-called “permanent law” meaning the 1949 and 1938 farm bills.  Reverting to permanent law would theoretically require USDA to implement antiquated programs that would sharply raise commodity prices and food costs and are thus widely seen as the big incentive for Congress to complete each farm bill reauthorization on time — except that for the past four farm bill cycles, this incentive has not been enough to get bills done on schedule, though it at least at times helped secure a farm bill extension to provide the extra needed to complete the full bill.  The initial impact of permanent law would not be felt until early in the calendar year, and the full impact, if it ever were to happen, would not be felt for a year or more.

In addition to CRP and WRP, farm conservation programs that will expire and stop new activity on October 1 include the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Program and the Grassland Reserve Program.

The trade programs that will cease on October 1 include export credit guarantees, export market promotion (including the Market Access Program and Foreign market Development Program), and dairy and specialty crop export programs.  Authority to replenish the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust, a backstop used to meet unanticipated humanitarian food aid needs, also will end on October 1.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill, Local & Regional Food Systems

2 responses to “Some Critical Farm Bill Programs Come to a Screeching Halt in 10 Days”

  1. Mike says:

    Thank you for this post! It was informative and interesting to hear about how this bill as well as the steps that are being taken to protect and help programs.

  2. […] We know that most USDA offices are closed during the shutdown.  This means you cannot seek assistance from, for example, the Farm Service Agency or National Resources Conservation Service because the offices are closed.  In pragmatic terms, this means items such as loan applications are not being processed by the Farm Service Agency.  Direct payments may also be impacted.  A list of programs that expired on October 1st and the implications is here. […]