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House Budget Committee’s Spending Proposal Could Derail Farm Bill

July 20, 2017

House Budget Committee Chairwoman Diane Black (R-TN). Photo credit: Associated Press.

Late in the evening of July 17th, following over twelve hours of debate and markup, the House Budget Committee passed its budget parameters for fiscal year (FY) 2018. The budget, which was voted out of Committee along partisan lines (22 Republicans voting in favor and 14 Democrats against), includes a directive for the Agriculture Committee to make a $10 billion 10-year cut to farm bill food and agricultural programs – a move that promises to cause problems, if not wholly derail, the upcoming farm bill negotiations.

The Committee’s budget proposal sets the blueprint for both discretionary (appropriated) and mandatory spending through resolution. As expected, the budget provides “reconciliation instructions” for tax cuts as well as instructions for 11 authorizing committees to cut at least $203 billion in mandatory funding over the coming decade. The authorizing committees would be required to write legislation to achieve those cuts and report that legislation back to the Budget Committee by October 6th.

Included within the $203 billion in cuts to mandatory spending is a $10 billion cut to food and agriculture programs within the farm bill. Though theoretically the Agriculture Committee could cut any program within their jurisdiction, the explanatory materials provided by the Budget Committee make plain that the target is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly referred to as food stamps. The severity of such a cut, its potential political impact on the feasibility of passing the next farm bill, and the consequences such a funding loss would have for American low-income and rural communities cannot be understated.

In addition to the reconciliation instructions for mandatory spending, which the Committee considers a small down payment toward balancing the budget, the resolution also assumes further reductions mandatory spending for domestic social programs of several trillion dollars over the coming decade. Included in this portion of the budget are the farm commodity, crop insurance programs, and conservation programs, as well as the nutrition and food assistance programs.

In other words, the House budget resolution assumes the House Agriculture Committee will make massive cuts to farm, conservation, and nutrition programs when it takes up the farm bill next year. Unlike the reconciliation instructions, which would be locked in this year through the fast track procedures included in the budget for reconciliation, the more massive cuts to the farm bill are assumptions used in the budget resolution that the Agriculture Committee could follow, but is not necessarily required to do so. Nonetheless, if the full House approves the Committee-approved resolution, it will be putting itself on record as supporting huge cuts to the farm bill.

Previously, we published a blog post breaking down the details of how budget reconciliation works. In today’s post we expand upon this initial exploration and include specifics on how spending proposals can impact the writing of the next farm bill, as well as what to expect now that the proposal has passed out of the House Budget Committee.

Farm Bill Implications – Reconciliation

Under reconciliation rules, each authorizing committee assigned cuts is given a number to achieve and a date by which to report a measure achieving the cut (in this case the resolution assigned October 6, 2017 as the “due date” for the cuts). The decision of how exactly the cuts will get made, however, is left to the authorizing committee. While the budget resolution does include language that recommends cuts within the SNAP, it cannot directly instruct the Agriculture Committees to make cuts from SNAP, or any other particular program. The Agriculture Committees themselves will have to determine where they are to find the $10 million in savings within farm bill spending. Nonetheless, it is widely assumed by both the Budget and Agriculture Committee leadership that the cuts would come entirely from SNAP.

Leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have expressed their dismay at the proposed cuts to agriculture and emphasized the devastating impact these cuts would have on bipartisan efforts to reauthorize a new farm bill. The nutrition title of the bill, and SNAP in particular, is vitally important to the cohesion of the coalition of urban, rural, Democrat, and Republican voices that traditionally work together on the farm bill in each chamber.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Pat Roberts (R-KS) was quoted this week as saying the House cuts would doom the farm bill in the Senate. According to Roberts “you can’t target SNAP over in the Senate and expect to get the votes necessary to get to 60” – referring to the number of votes needed to end a filibuster and pass a farm bill.

House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) had this to say: “The cuts as outlined in the Majority’s budget resolution will make it much more difficult, if not near impossible, to pass a new farm bill. Singling out the SNAP program will kill the farm bill. This is the kind of political ideology that led to the failure of the 2014 Farm Bill on the House floor….This is more of a political exercise than a serious debate but it could have a very real impact on the fate of the farm bill. There are ways for us to work together but this isn’t it.”

Outside of the farm bill, the reconciliation instructions would also hit hard at school breakfast and lunch programs. The resolution directs that House Education and Workforce Committee that has jurisdiction over the Child Nutrition Act to report back $20 billion in cuts to programs within its jurisdiction over the coming decade. The resolution assumes $1.6 billion of those cuts would result from eliminating thousands of schools from the School Meal Community Eligibility Provision, an important tool to ease the paperwork burden on schools in low-income communities.

Farm Bill Implications – Additional Cuts Beyond Reconciliation

As noted above, in addition to the instructed cuts to mandatory funding, the budget also proposes massive additional cuts to food and agricultural programs. Many of the policy changes mentioned as a point of reference by the Budget Committee are also directed at SNAP and the nutrition title, though farm and conservation programs are also included. The extent of these proposed policy changes is not clear from the information provided in the budget, but we do know that the resolution assumes $2.4 trillion in savings over ten years from mandatory programs other than Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, a category that includes SNAP, conservation, commodity, and crop insurance programs.

Included in the resolution’s projected cuts is a 10-year $55 billion reduction to the Natural Resources and Environment section of the budget, which includes farm bill conservation programs. Without seeing the details of the budget assumptions, however, we can’t know yet exactly what the cuts would be to the farm bill component. Additionally, the budget assumes a $23 billion reduction to farm safety net programs (commodity, crop insurance, trade), though it does define the particular programs to be targeted or how the cuts would be achieved.

SNAP and the related nutrition programs are slated in the resolution to take some portion of the overall proposed cut of $900 billion to income security programs. According the Budget Committee staff, the SNAP cut would be approximately $150 billion. The resolution also directs trillions in cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, and other income security programs in addition to SNAP.

In practice, policy proposals in budget resolutions (other than those with reconciliation instructions) are more symbolic political statements by the majority party than actual cuts. They are, in essence, an architectural blueprint, but a blueprint that does not have to be followed by the authorizing committees. Nonetheless, the cuts assumed by the House budget are very concerning and will no doubt influence the spending mentality going into the next farm bill. Votes in favor of the resolution when it comes to the floor can be understood as endorsements of major cuts to farm, conservation, and nutrition programs in the 2018 Farm Bill, putting those who vote in favor in a more difficult political position when it comes to approving a new farm bill without cuts.

Nearly 30 Amendments Offered

The Democratic members of the Committee offered 28 amendments to the proposal over the course of the twelve hours of markup, all of which were defeated on largely partisan voting lines.

Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM), who is also a member of the Agriculture Committee, offered an amendment of note, which would reverse the policy changes the budget proposed for SNAP. We applaud Congresswoman Lujan Grisham for standing against the estimated $150 billion in cuts to SNAP.

What about the Senate?

It is important to remember that in order for budget reconciliation instructions to actually become operational, the Senate must also move forward with their own bill. Thus far, the Senate has taken no action on a budget resolution of their own and there appears to be far less appetite in the Senate to follow the House down the path of reconciliation for mandatory spending. To date, the Senate seems far more focused on reconciliation instructions for tax cuts, without complicating the tax bill with cuts to mandatory domestic social programs. There appears to be greater concern in the Senate about the optics of combining tax changes that primarily benefit the well-off combined with spending cuts that fall most heavily on those with low incomes. Without agreement from the Senate, the reconciliation instructions for mandatory spending would ultimately fizzle.

Next Stop – House Floor?

Even without action from the Senate, however, if the House’s budget resolution makes it to the floor and passes out of the House, the authorizing committees that were instructed to make cuts (including the House Agriculture Committee) would still have to make those cuts by October 6, 2017. Again, those cuts couldn’t become law without action from the Senate, but the action from the House Agriculture Committee would set a precedent for the farm bill and potentially influence the thinking on spending and program support over the next year.

Recent reports indicate that the House may not have the 218 votes she needs to pass the bill on the floor. Thus far, many Republicans have indicated that they’d be willing to blow up the budget process if additional information on tax reform was not included, while others have opposed the cuts to mandatory spending included in the bill. Leaders can only afford to lose 22 Republican votes to pass the resolution on a partisan basis.

Leadership will be working hard to try and get the votes, but time is quickly running out – there is only a week to go before the House leaves for August recess. Budget Chairwoman Black continues to insist that now is the time to get the budget across the finish line in the House, but it is possible that they could also try and push for floor consideration in the fall.

NSAC will be closely following action in the House, and will continue to strongly urge defeat of the House measure and for the Senate to avoid the dangerous path that the House has started down by choosing to target agriculture, conservation, and nutrition programs.

Categories: Budget and Appropriations, Farm Bill

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