NSAC's Blog

Democrat-led House Passes Bill to End Shutdown, Support Sustainable Agriculture

January 4, 2019

Closed sign. Photo credit: Purple Heather, Flickr.

Editor’s Note: On Thursday, January 10, the House passed their fiscal year 2019 (FY) Agriculture Appropriations bill on the floor as a standalone bill. This was the same bill that was included as part of a package of six bills, which was passed by the House (though not taken up by the Senate) last week and detailed in the post below. Both iterations of the FY 2019 Agriculture Appropriations were nearly identical to the version the Senate passed at the end of 2018; which included several important funding increases for sustainable agriculture. At this point, there has been no progress on negotiations to end the shutdown and reopen the government.

The House will send their standalone agriculture spending bill to the Senate, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has held firm to his promise not to take up any spending bills without guaranteed funding for the President’s border wall or a signal of approval from the White House. NSAC will continue to provide updates as negotiations move forward, and will report on any developments on FY 2019 sustainable agriculture funding priorities.

Only hours after the 116th Congress was sworn into office, the House of Representatives voted and passed two bills aimed at ending the partial government shutdown, which began two weeks ago today. One bill, H.R. 21, would set fiscal year (FY) 2019 funding levels for six of the remaining seven appropriations bills that have yet to be passed. This funding package would include the Agriculture Appropriations bill, which provides funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The other bill passed by the House, H.J. Res 1, tackles the remaining appropriations bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). H.J. Res 1 would extend funding at FY 2018 funding levels for DHS through February 8, providing additional time for Congress to hopefully overcome the impasse created by the President’s demand for funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In addition to ending the partial shutdown and getting furloughed federal workers back on the job, the House’s FY 2019 appropriations package also includes important increases for sustainable agriculture priorities. This package is nearly identical to the Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill released last spring, which was widely praised by agriculture and conservation groups, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC).

While we are pleased to see the new House of Representatives take up the farmer-forward Senate agriculture bill, we are dismayed that their efforts are almost certain to be thwarted by the ongoing partisan fight over funding for the President’s border wall.

Senate Refuses to Move Bills Forward without President’s Approval

Both the House’s FY 2019 appropriations bills and the extension of DHS funding were already passed by the Senate in the 115th Congress. Under normal circumstances, the Senate would easily pass a bill already approved in their previous session and send it on to the President for his signature. Given the partisan divides in the current Congress, however, the bills put forward by the 116th House and originally written by the 115th Senate is likely to stall out.  

Last month, the Senate passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) to extend FY 2018 funding levels for all remaining appropriations bills, including DHS, through February 8. They passed this extension on a voice vote prior to the announcement from the President that he would not sign any bill that didn’t include increased funding for the wall. The funding levels included in the House’s package of appropriations bills also reflect those already passed by the Senate last Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has pledged that he will not bring the bills for a vote in the Senate without the nod of approval from the President. This doesn’t bode well for ending the government shutdown anytime soon, as the President issued a formal veto threat just yesterday unless funding for his wall was secured. As the struggle over the wall drags on, funding for critical federal agencies remains held hostage, as do the salaries of the hundreds of thousands of federal employees who will go without pay in the coming weeks.

Funding Increases for Sustainable Agriculture at Stake

In the previous appropriations cycle (FY 2018), NSAC helped to secure huge wins for sustainable agriculture programs, and the FY 2019 package introduced this week retains or builds on many of those wins.

Last year, the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees drafted bills that were passed by the full appropriations committees in each chamber. The Senate bill was passed on the full floor, whereas the House bill was not. However, Congress did begin the process of conferencing, or negotiating the differences between the two versions of the bill, in September of 2018. Unfortunately, Congress was not able to pass the “minibus” appropriations package that included agriculture before the September 30 deadline, and thus the process of extending FY 2018 levels through CRs began.

The appropriations package that the House (116th Congress) passed last night reflected the Senate’s levels for sustainable agriculture programs, which are summarized below:

  • Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education – $37 million, an increase of $2 million above FY 2018 levels and $7 million above the level originally proposed in the House (115th Congress) bill.
  • Food Safety Outreach Program – $8 million, an increase of $1 million above FY 2018 levels and $3 million above the level originally proposed in the House bill.
  • Value-Added Producer Grant program –  $15 million in discretionary funding, plus an additional $2.5 million for grants to state innovation centers to offer technical assistance and outreach to farmers and ranchers engaged in value-added agriculture – the additional $2.5 was not included in the House bill last year.
  • Organic Transitions research program – $6 million, an increase of $1 million from FY 2018 and the level proposed by the House last year.
  • Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas – $3.75 million, an increase of $1 million above FY 2018 levels and the level proposed by the House last year.

Both House and Senate bills retained many of the sustainable agriculture wins from the FY 2018 bill, including: no cuts to farm bill conservation programs, level funding for Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans, $3 million in discretionary funding for the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program, and no cuts to farm bill mandatory funding for the Rural Energy for America Program.

The only priority with higher funding in last year’s House bill over the Senate bill was funding for Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA); the current House bill also retains this slightly lower funding level for CTA as compared with the previous House bill.

Unfortunately, the House bill passed this week does not address USDA’s controversial decision to relocate two federal research agencies outside of the Washington Capital Region. The Administration proposed this move last August, which took the research community – and USDA employees themselves – by complete surprise. Since the announcement, there has been a unified backlash from the broader research, academic, and scientific community opposing the move.

Prior to recessing for the holidays, members of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, as well as House leadership, introduced a bill that would prohibit USDA from moving forward with the relocation. And while the funding plus-ups for other sustainable ag priorities are bright spots in the House-passed bill, we are extremely disappointed that the bill remains silent on this important issue – essentially giving USDA a green light to move forward.

For a detailed analysis of the funding levels proposed in the Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill, which were carried over into the House’s appropriations package, read our previous blog here.

Farm Bill Implementation and USDA Assistance on Hold

The partial government shutdown has major implications for USDA’s ability to function on a daily basis. The longer we remain without an agriculture appropriations bill, the more difficult it will be for USDA to provide much-needed services to farmers across the country. Additionally, USDA will be unable to begin the implementation process for the 2018 Farm Bill, which was signed into law only days before the government shutdown, until FY 2019 funding levels are set.

USDA is able to keep a number of employees working in order to handle critical functions, however, “non-essential” programs were forced to come to a halt. For example, USDA’s FSA offices, which offer loans to farmers, were able to stay open for the first week of the shutdown using carryover funding. After that first week, however, FSA field offices around the country were out of funds and forced to close.

Additionally, USDA is no longer able to provide new loans for rural development or for housing, community facilities, and education projects. The shutdown has also put a stop to agriculture research and education grant funding, as well as to the publication of statistics on commodity and livestock production and economic projections.

In addition to the slowing down or halting of day-to-day USDA functions, the partial shutdown also has major implications for the implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill. After being signed into law, a significant amount of rulemaking and implementation work takes place in order to get the programs and policies of the farm bill up and running – USDA of course plays a key role in this process.

Farmers and ranchers already waited months past the original deadline for the 2018 Farm Bill, which left many without access to resources or support that they had counted on. The additional delays caused by the partial shutdown will only exacerbate the ongoing struggles of American producers, as well as the many communities, food entrepreneurs, and families that rely on support from farm bill programs.

Next Steps

Today, House and Senate leadership from both parties head back to the White House for further conversations about the path forward. Neither side appears ready to give any ground, however. NSAC urges the Senate and the White House to pass the House’s appropriations package and reopen the government as soon as possible. Congress already has an extremely long to-do list (e.g., the FY 2020 appropriations process, farm bill implementation and oversight, and continued pushback against USDA’s proposed relocation of the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture), getting back to work (and getting furloughed federal employees back to work) should be their top priority.

Categories: Budget and Appropriations

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