NSAC's Blog

One Month Left for Congress to Fund Key Food and Agriculture Programs

November 10, 2017

US Capitol Building. Photo credit: Eric B. Walker.

Congress has less than one month left to pass a funding bill that will keep the government’s doors open beyond December 8. After this point, the funding from Congress’ temporary funding bill (negotiated earlier this fall) will run out, and critical programs and services will be put at risk.

If the House and the Senate cannot find a way to reconcile their individual appropriations bills (which include funding for key agriculture, food, and rural development programs) before the month is out, we will likely see another Continuing Resolution (CR) that extends 2017 funding levels. If Congress does choose the CR option, they can negotiate how far forward they want to punt the appropriations ball and extend FY 2017 funding – the CR could extend through the full 2018 fiscal year, or possibly for just a few additional days, weeks, or months.

What’s at stake for sustainable agriculture?

As we’ve previously reported, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has continued to engage on the FY 2018 appropriations process and recently submitted recommendations regarding how appropriators should reconcile the differences between the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations bills.

There is a lot on the line in this funding package for farmers, consumers, and rural communities nationwide. Our recommendations for FY 2018 identify areas that require congressional support, including: conservation, beginning farmers, research, rural development, and local food programs.

In addition to NSAC’s individual conference recommendations, we also joined with several other coalitions to advocate for shared priorities for FY 2018 funding needs.  These efforts include:

Conservation – A broad coalition of conservation, agriculture, and wildlife organizations submitted a letter to appropriators requesting full funding for farm bill conservation programs – including the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The House bill provided full funding for both CSP and EQIP, while the Senate bill included the backdoor mechanism referred to as Changes in Mandatory Program Spending (CHIMPS) to propose a significant cut to EQIP. The 39 groups who signed onto the letter urge appropriators to defer to the House funding levels which leave farm bill conservation program funding intact. The letter also recommends that final FY 2018 spending legislation include robust funding for Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA), deferring to the increased appropriation included in the Senate bill.

Research – NSAC also joined with a coalition of research institutions, scientific societies, and other agricultural stakeholders in thanking appropriators for strong support for research funding through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) which was included in both the House and Senate FY 2018 spending bills. AFRI is USDA’s largest competitive research program, providing funding for grants for fundamental and applied research, extension, and education to address key challenges that farmers, rural communities, and consumers face. The letter thanks appropriators for providing $375 million in both bills, and urges them to continue to work towards the full authorized funding level of $700 million, which the program has yet to reach, nearly a decade after its creation.

Rural Development – Finally, NSAC joined a letter to send a strong message regarding the importance of rural development programs and urge appropriators to direct the Secretary of Agriculture to nominate someone to fill the role of USDA Undersecretary for Rural Development. In May 2017, USDA announced that it intended to eliminate its Rural Development Undersecretary.  This move would downgrade rural development as a mission area within USDA, undermine its leadership structure, and is shortsighted and dangerous. The letter delivered this week urges appropriators to adopt the Senate bill’s language that directs USDA to retain the Rural Development Mission area, appoint an Undersecretary for Rural Development, and includes funding for the long-standing position.

NSAC stands committed to work alongside our members, partners, and other coalitions, as well as our Congressional champions, to advance all of these critical funding priorities as Congress continues negotiations over final FY 2018 spending legislation.

Deadline Approaches, but No Deal in Sight

With less than one month to go before the December 8th funding deadline, it appears that very little progress has been made to negotiate final spending levels between the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations bills. Congress has been tied up with tax reform, health care debates, disaster assistance needs, and more, and has made little progress on brokering a funding deal.

On top of all these to-do’s, before Congress can pass final appropriations legislation for FY 2018, they must decide whether or not to raise overall discretionary spending caps.  In 2011, Congress set spending caps for the following ten years. Since then, the House and Senate have on a number of occasions agreed to raise those caps for a particular year or set of years, but no such deal has yet been reached for FY 2018.

These spending caps have implications for farmers and agricultural advocates, because when the caps are exceeded, automatic across-the-board cuts (known as “sequestration”) are applied to all non-exempt programs. If final appropriations legislation for FY 2018 exceeds the spending cap on non-defense programs, sequestration cuts will be applied to discretionary spending for nearly all programs administered by USDA.

As currently written, the House Appropriations Committee’s spending package (known as the “mini-bus”), within which Agriculture is housed, would bust the defense spending cap for FY 2018 by more than $72 billion. The spending package would not, however, exceed the non-defense spending cap. The FY 2018 spending allocations set by the Senate Appropriations Committee would exceed both the defense and the non-defense spending caps.

The current standstill when it comes to addressing the spending caps has resulted in proposals that would boost defense spending while extending other funding levels at current levels, in the absence of an agreement on non-military money. This type of “cromnibus” would come at the expense of key food and agriculture programs for FY 2018.

What comes next?

The month ahead presents numerous challenges to getting FY 2018 final spending levels passed, but most members of Congress will be doing all they can to avoid a government shutdown or a full year funding extension at FY 2017 levels. Neither of these options are in the best interest of farmers, consumers, and rural communities, and we urge appropriators and Congress to work towards passing legislation that invests in sustainable agriculture for the year ahead.

NSAC will continue to monitor and report on the appropriations process as it moves forward, so stay tuned for further updates.

Categories: Budget and Appropriations

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