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Path to the 2012 Farm Bill: House Agriculture Committee Sends Letter to Budget Committee

March 7, 2012

On Tuesday, March 7, the House Agriculture Committee approved its “Budget Views and Estimates Letter,” which outlines the Committee’s funding requests for a variety of USDA programs (primarily farm bill programs) for fiscal year (FY) 2013.  Each year, the House Agriculture Committee sends a budget views and estimates letter to the House Budget Committee ahead of that committee’s release of a budget resolution for the year.

In his opening remarks at today’s business meeting, Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) stated:

Thank you Chairman Lucas.  I believe the letter before us today illustrates the many challenges that lie ahead as we begin writing a new farm bill.  As the letter states, the Chairman and I worked together to develop a proposal saving $23 billion as part of the Super Committee process.  We were the only Congressional Committee that even attempted to do this.  And, while it is unfortunate that the Super Committee ultimately failed, this proposal could now serve as the framework for writing the 2012 Farm Bill.

A $23 billion cut is more than we would be required to do under sequestration.  Personally, I’d much rather pass a baseline bill and take our chances under sequestration.  However, I was willing to accept these cuts because the Chairman and I negotiated with our Senate counterparts and, if the Super Committee were to reach an agreement, agriculture would not face further reductions[…]

I think the Budget Views and Estimates letter makes clear that if the Agriculture Committee is left alone to do its work, we will work together to reduce the deficit in a responsible way while continuing to best represent our constituents[…]

The House Budget Committee is set to release a FY 2013 budget resolution this month or next, and farm bill watchers fear  it will include major cuts to agriculture programs.  Last year’s House budget resolution proposed to cut $30 billion from commodity and crop insurance programs, $20 billion from conservation programs and $127 billion from the SNAP program over ten years.  According to ranking member Peterson, “You cannot pass a farm bill with cuts like those.”

Indeed, both the House Agriculture Committee and their counterparts in the Senate put in a great deal of work during the Super Committee process to build a Farm Bill while substantially reducing the deficit.  A decision by the House Budget Committee to increase Farm Bill cuts substantially above $23 billion will likely put an end to the House Agriculture Committees’ effort to  craft, vet, and pass a Farm Bill this year.  Much is therefore riding on the actions of the House Budget Committee.

An equally big debate is roiling the House Budget Committee process — whether to abide by the spending caps for annual discretionary spending for the government (including agriculture) negotiated as part of the Budget Control Act last summer, or whether to break that painstakingly arrived at deal and move to a lower spending cap.

In the letter, Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Ranking Member Peterson point out that an unreasonably low discretionary spending cap would also lead appropriators to make additional “changes in mandatory program spending” (known as “CHIMPS” in Capitol Hill parlance) in the FY 2013 Agriculture Appropriations bill.  Through CHIMPS, appropriators can unilaterally impose annual spending limits on Farm Bill mandatory spending programs without the approval of the Agriculture Committees.  The Agriculture Committees, not the Appropriations Committees, have jurisdiction over authorizing mandatory spending every five years in the Farm Bill.  According to the letter, “these CHIMPS come at the expense of the [Agriculture] Committee and its ability to fund its mandatory spending programs.”

Unfortunately, mandatory conservation spending has taken the brunt of CHIMPS since the 2008 Farm Bill.  In fact, the Conservation Title has been uniquely targeted, accounting for over 50 percent of all Farm Bill CHIMPS from FY 2003 to FY 2010 and 83 percent of all Farm Bill CHIMPS from FY 2007 to FY 2010.  Last year alone, mandatory conservation spending was cut by $745.5 million, the largest single-year CHIMP since 2002.

In contrast, between FY 2002 and FY 2012, appropriators did not once use CHIMPS to reduce direct spending on farm production subsidies.  It is our hope that this year Congress will buck the trend of shortchanging the agriculture spending allocation with the expectation that it will be paid for by raiding farm bill mandatory conservation money.  It is an unfair and abusive practice that should come to an end.

It remains to be seen whether or not the House Budget Committee will include massive cuts to Farm Bill programs like it did last year.  If it does, and the full House approves such a budget, it will be difficult for Congress to finalize and pass a farm bill this year.  Hopefully they take seriously today’s House Agriculture Committee letter.

Likewise, if the House Budget Committee breaks the deal reach in the Budget Control Act and goes for a lower discretionary spending number, it will be difficult for any appropriations bills to pass this year, and possibly put Congress on course for another round of threatening government shutdown, this time right before national elections.

In one ray of hope, both Democratic and Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee indicated last week that they intend to abide by the Budget Control Act agreement from last year and would not support lowering spending caps below the levels set at that time.  We hope that the Budget Committee has been listening.  We also hope that the appropriators provide a sufficient allocation to discretionary agriculture and food safety spending so they do not again unfairly raid farm bill conservation funds.

Categories: Budget and Appropriations, Farm Bill

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