NSAC's Blog

Congress Clears FY 2020 Appropriations Packages

December 20, 2019

Kentucky Farmer Will Bowling with NSAC staff on Capitol Hill. Photo credit: NSAC.
Kentucky Farmer Will Bowling with NSAC staff on Capitol Hill. Photo credit: NSAC.

This week, after months of delay, Congress passed a much-anticipated deal to fund the government through the end of fiscal year (FY) 2020. FY 2020 runs through September 30, 2020. The $1.4 trillion package of discretionary spending bills, which was divided up into two “minibuses”, was finally delivered this week after months of rigorous advocacy by organizations like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). The first minibus (H.R. 1865) included eight of the twelve appropriations bills, all covering domestic policy. The second minibus (H.R. 1158) was a four bill package focused on national security. The first minibus includes funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

One Tuesday afternoon, the House passed both bills with the domestic spending package passing by a vote of 297-120. Two days later, the Senate followed suit and cleared both packages (by a vote of 71-23 for the domestic bill). The President is expected to promptly sign both bills before midnight on December 20 when the current Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded expires.

The final Agriculture-FDA portion of the domestic minibus includes $23.49 billion in discretionary spending for food and farm programs – including the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) – plus $1.5 billion is emergency spending for disaster assistance. The House agriculture appropriations bill routinely includes CFTC funding, while in the Senate, CFTC is under the jurisdiction of the Senate Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee. The final allocation of $23.49 billion was a compromise between what the Senate and House had allocated for agriculture spending: $23.36 billion (includes CFTC) and $24.29 billion, respectively. The compromise allocation rejected the $4.5 billion in cuts proposed by the President’s budget, and allowed for the inclusion of several increases to sustainable agriculture and food access programs.

For NSAC’s high level summary of the bill, check out our press comment here.

Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Priorities

With FY 2020 agriculture appropriations headed to the President’s desk, farmers and food producing communities can finally breathe a sigh of relief knowing that at least one cloud of uncertainty has been swept from the horizon. Overall, NSAC is pleased with the final FY 2020 appropriations for agriculture spending. The sustainable agriculture community was able to rally together to protect, and in several cases secure modest, but important increases to priority programs.

NSAC priorities in the FY 2020 domestic spending minibus include:

For a detailed spreadsheet of FY 2020 funding levels, download our updated appropriations chart.

Conservation and Renewable Energy

For the third consecutive year, NSAC helped to ensure an appropriations bill free of cuts to mandatory spending for the farm bill’s major working lands conservation programs: the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). NSAC has long fought against “Changes in Mandatory Program Spending” (aka CHIMPS) to farm bill conservation programs in appropriations bills, and we applaud congressional appropriators for once again choosing to protect these critical programs.

The bill also increases total funding for Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA), which provides farmers with on-the ground conservation support from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service local offices. CTA supports farmers’ resource management through conservation planning assistance, resource assessment, and monitoring of conservation activities. CTA received an increase of nearly $10 million for a total of $735.76 million for FY 2020.

The FY 2020 spending bill also protects farm bill mandatory funding for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which provides grants and loans to farmers and rural businesses to implement wind, solar, and other renewable energy systems, and also provides resources for energy audits and renewable resources development. The 2018 Farm Bill provided REAP with $50 million in mandatory funding annually, maintaining 2014 Farm Bill levels. The minibus also doubled REAP’s funding for loan capital from $350,000 in FY19 to $706,000 in additional loan funding in FY20.

Rural Development and Local Food

The FY 2020 minibus also includes a number of wins for local/regional food systems, healthy food access, and rural development. Several NSAC priority programs were either protected or provided with modest increases as part of this year’s spending package.

The 2018 Farm Bill created the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP), a program championed by NSAC, which combined the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP) and the Value-Added Producers Grant Program (VAPG).

Under LAMP, both VAPG and FMLFPP are provided with permanent mandatory funding; however because of the way that funds are divided between the two programs, FMLFPP ends up with $5.3 million less in annual mandatory funding compared to its level under the 2014 Farm Bill. VAPG was provided with a small increase in mandatory funding relative to 2014 Farm Bill levels, but that increase is far less than the program’s historic funding levels. Over the life of the 2014 Farm Bill, VAPG received $25.9 million in combined mandatory and discretionary funding; whereas under the 2018 Farm Bill, VAPG is provided with only $17.5 million in mandatory funding per year.

Thankfully, congressional appropriators – like their colleagues who worked so diligently on the 2018 Farm Bill – recognized the importance of these keystone local food and entrepreneurship programs and include $5.4 million in discretionary funds for FMLFPP and $12 million for VAPG in the FY 2020 spending package.

Several other important rural economic development programs are also provided with increased funding in FY 2020. Appropriators doubled funding for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP), providing the program with $6 million in grant and loan funding for FY 2020. RMAP provides organizations and entities engaged in rural economic development with loan and grant capital to support current rural owner-operator small businesses and prospective entrepreneurs with technical assistance and microloans. The Rural Business Development Grants (RBDG) program and Business and Industry Loan Guarantee Program (B&I) also receive increases. RBDG is provided $37 million ($2 million more than in FY 2019) and B&I received a loan level of $1 billion (an increase of $50 million over FY 2019) which will result in $50 million for the Local & Regional Food Enterprise development loan guarantees. 

However, the good news does not stop there. The FY 2020 spending package also includes $5 million to implement the new Office of Urban Agriculture (authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill) and nearly doubles discretionary funding for the Farm to School Grant Program. This is welcome news, as it currently appears efforts to pass a new Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization during this Congress have stalled. USDA’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) also receives a significant boost in funding: $5 million in FY 2020, up from $2 million in FY 2019. HFFI provides resources to healthy food retail and food enterprise projects to overcome the higher costs and initial barriers to serving areas with inequitable access.

Beginning, Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers

The 2018 Farm Bill created the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) program in order to strengthen USDA’s assistance to beginning, veteran, tribal and other underserved farmers. FOTO combines two of USDA’s flagship training and technical assistance programs – the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) and the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (aka “Section 2501”).

In combining the funding and authorizations for BFRDP and 2501, Congress was able to provide both programs with permanent baseline funding; however to do so, each program took a cut from historic funding levels in the first few years of the new program.

With the ultimate goal of returning both programs to their historic funding levels, NSAC fought to secure discretionary funding to fill the gaps. While shy of the full $10 million NSAC had pushed for, we are pleased that the FY 2020 spending package includes a $5 million discretionary bump for FOTO. The FY 2020 minibus is silent on how the FOTO funding should be used or distributed between BFRDP and 2501, leaving it potentially open to administration discretion.

Research and Food Safety

FY 2020 agriculture research and education spending and policy is one place in which the compromised nature of the FY 2020 appropriations process is most apparent for sustainable agriculture and food systems priorities. Sadly, the bill does not provide an increase in funding for the longstanding Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program – USDA’s only farmer driven research program – which is provided flat funding of $37 million in the FY 2020 spending package. The Organic Transitions (ORG) research program, which helps support organic farmers and livestock producers, also received level funding ($6 million) the same as in FY 2019. While neither program received an increase in funding, it is noteworthy that the FY2020 spending package rejects the extreme and deep cuts to these programs proposed in the president’s budget.

Unfortunately, the bill does not include any language to reverse the relocation of two key USDA research agencies, the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The bill does not, however, provide any additional funding to support future relocation expenses. USDA proposed this move last August and has since lost up to 80 percent of staff in the upheaval of relocating both agencies out of Washington, DC. NSAC has vigorously opposed this move and is disappointed that Congress did not act sooner to stop this damaging and ill-thought out plan that will have long-term impacts on the future of agriculture in this country.

However, broader agriculture research spending saw some important increases; the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), was provided an additional $10 million in grant funding, bringing total funding up to $425 million. This continues a trend of significant year-to-year increases for agriculture research. The FY 2020 package also includes report language intended to address inequities in funding for the country’s Long-Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) network which consists of 19 sites across the country engaging in long-term agroecological research.  The inclusion of the report language along with an 8.5 percent increase in funding for the Agriculture Research Service will hopefully result in funding being provided to the 3 LTAR sites that currently are not receiving any funding.

The Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP), which funds food safety related outreach, education, training, and technical assistance projects that directly assist small and mid-sized farms, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, small processors, and small-scale wholesalers was provided with $8 million for FY 2020 which is flat funding relative to FY 2019. 

Farm Credit and Support Services

Access to credit is critical for farmers, particularly for those just beginning their careers and for producers not well served by the commercial lending sector. Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan programs fill the lending gap by providing financing for producers unable to secure credit from private lenders. For decades, these programs have increased access to credit for small and mid-size family farms and for operations run by beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers.

The FY 2020 spending levels for FSA Guaranteed and Direct Operating loans, as well as for Guaranteed Farm Ownership loans for the most part maintained FY 2019 levels (Direct Operating and Ownership Loans received modest increases):

  • Direct Operating Loans: $1.55 billion
  • Direct Farm Ownership Loans: $1.875 billion
  • Guaranteed Farm Ownership Loans: $2.75 billion
  • Guaranteed Operating Loans: $1.96 billion

The minibus also includes $35 million to address FSA staffing shortages across the country. This funding will allow FSA to hire additional loan officers and other county staff, which will hopefully decrease processing time for loan applications and provide needed technical support especially for first time FSA borrowers. The bill also retains a Senate amendment that provides first time funding for a new provision in the farm bill that would establish a relending program within FSA to resolve heirs property issues.

Regular Order

Under “regular order,” as structured by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 and Article 9 of the U.S. Constitution, the budget and appropriations process is supposed to culminate with the passage and enaction of all regular appropriations bills by the end of the fiscal year. The fiscal year runs from October 1 of one calendar year to midnight on September 30 of the next calendar year.

To begin the process, the President is supposed to submit a proposed budget to Congress by the first Monday of February. In response, Congress is to adopt a concurrent resolution on the budget that establishes the overall budget and fiscal framework for congressional appropriators to follow.

The most important features of a budget resolution is the 302(a) allocation. The 302(a) allocation is the total level of discretionary funding available for a given fiscal year.

Under regular order, the Chairs of each Appropriations Subcommittee (under the direction of Appropriations Committee leadership) divide the 302(a) allocation among the 12 subcommittees. The 302(b) allocation is the amount of funding allocated to each appropriations subcommittee. Once the subcommittees have their 302(b) allocations, they further divide that funding up among the programs within their individual spending bills.

A New Normal?

Sadly, it has been decades since Congress last fully funded the government under regular order. The FY 2020 appropriations packages, which should have been finalized before September 30, were no different. We are currently living in the era of the CR, wherein Congress is continually scrambling to cobble together temporary funding patches and final appropriations bills are forever behind schedule.

In this cycle, the nation waited through two CRs, with the second passing in November and funding the government through December 20. Deadlines weren’t the only piece of the process outside of “regular order,” however. Congress did not officially set its topline spending 302(a) allocation until late July, well after the House had passed all twelve of their appropriations bills with an estimated or “deemed” 302(a).

Next Steps

With FY 2020 minibusses speeding towards the finish line, Congress now heads home for a holiday break until the new year. The budget and appropriations process is expected to start again in February, with the President’s FY 2021 budget proposal due to be released at the beginning of the month. Given that the impeachment process will move to the Senate at the beginning of next year, however, delays are very likely in the year ahead.

The budget deal struck in July 2019 set discretionary spending caps for two years, which means that – thankfully – Congress will not have to negotiate new 302(a) allocations for FY 2021. With that hurdle already cleared, we would normally have hope that the process would return to regular order. Next year, however, is riddled with obstacles – in addition to the ongoing impeachment process, 2020 is also a presidential election year, which typically delays work in Congress and the White House.

Delays or not, NSAC will continue to work closely with our 130+ members, allies, and champions in Congress to ensure robust support and funding for sustainable food and farm programs in the next fiscal year.

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Budget and Appropriations, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Food Safety, Local & Regional Food Systems, Marketing and Labeling, Nutrition & Food Access, Organic, Research, Education & Extension, Rural Development

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