NSAC's Blog

What’s in the Senate Funding Bill for Sustainable Agriculture?

July 16, 2015

Pop quiz: What do Frankenfish, Orca Whales, and whole grains all have in common?

Answer: They were all part of the amendment process today as the Senate Appropriations Committee advanced their version of next year’s federal funding bill for food, agriculture, and rural development.

Read on for our analysis of the Senate funding bill that included debate on each of these hot topics.

The agriculture appropriations bill advanced today by the Senate Appropriations Committee provides $20.51 billion to fund the activities of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the 2016 Fiscal Year which begins on October 1, 2015. Total funding in the bill is $65 million lower than this year’s funding levels, and $24 million below what the President requested for next year.

The bill sailed easily through both the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee and full Appropriations Committee this week, but whether or not it will reach the Senate floor before the end of the fiscal year remains to be seen.

Accounting for differences in jurisdiction between the House and Senate, the Senate bill includes $110 million more than that House bill.

Moving forward, the House and Senate will need to negotiate the differences between the two bills and come to an agreement on final levels and policy riders. There are several possible ways in which final agreement may be reached. We outline those possible outcomes below.

Jump down to see our coverage of the Senate debate and markup of the bill.

This post also breaks down the Senate Committee bill as it pertains to key sustainable farm and food priorities. You can download our annual appropriations chart here. You can also jump down to a particular issue area of interest:

Research, Education, Extension, and Food Safety Outreach

Despite the emphasis on the importance of agricultural research during debate of the Senate funding bill, we are disappointed in the lack of investment and growth in innovative research, education, and extension programs that underpin the success and sustainability of farms and the food system.

The Senate bill also maintains flat funding for both the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). Both the House and Senate bill’s fund SARE at $22.7 million (as requested by the President), but the House Committee bill does include a modest increase to AFRI to bring total funding to $335 million. The Senate bill rejects the President’s requested increase to $450 million for AFRI and maintains flat funding of $325 million.

In an earlier blog post, we evaluate the historical funding trends for these two key research programs, and the growing disparity between the two. As demonstrated in the President’s budget request, which proposed a 38 percent increase to AFRI and a zero percent increase to SARE, we remain deeply concerned that both the President and Congressional appropriators are focusing solely on AFRI to the exclusion of other equally important competitive research programs like SARE. We will be urging the Administration to increase their request for SARE in next year’s budget request to Congress, which sets the stage for the annual appropriations process.

The Food Safety Outreach Program is a new initiative launched by USDA and FDA last year that would ensure that farmers have the on-ground training and technical assistance they need to meet new food safety regulations. While the House Committee bill meets the President’s requested funding level of $5 million, the Senate bill unfortunately keeps funding flat with current levels at $2.5 million. This modest amount of funding will fall far short in addressing the needs of farmers and making sure they know what changes they need to implement on their farms to come into compliance with new food safety standards. On the other hand, the Senate bill does contain positive report language directing USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to ensure that program funding supports on the ground farmer training projects, rather than just the establishment of regional food safety centers.

Another positive note on the research front is a directive included in the Senate report language for USDA to establish a separate Request for Applications to support the development of publicly available plant varieties that are specifically bred to be adapted to the soils, climates, and farming systems of farmers of all regions. NSAC has long been working on the issues of new seeds and breeds, and are encouraged to see Congress recognizing the importance of this issue.

The Senate bill also includes strong report language directing USDA to ramp up its data collection on organic agriculture, including economic analysis, annual production surveys, and organic commodities prices to support the development of organic crop insurance products.

Most other research and extension programs remain flat with last year’s funding, including the Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural America program, more commonly known as ATTRA, and the Organic Transitions program. The Senate levels are in line with the House, and we are happy to see that both bills reject the President’s proposed cut to the ATTRA program.

Finally, the Senate bill provides additional funding for pollinator research within both the Agriculture Research Service and data collection through the National Agriculture Statistics Service.

Rural Development and Farm Loans

Like the House bill, the Senate bill renews last year’s historic increase to direct farm loans made through USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), including program levels of $1.5 billion for farm ownership loans and $1.252 billion for farm operating loans. We are very pleased to see Congress recognize the importance of these loan funds, especially in supporting the growth of new farmers as well as those who have been historically underserved by traditional credit markets. Learn more about these loans in an earlier blog post.

Unfortunately, neither the Senate or House bills provide any funding to support new initiatives to support beginning farmers, as proposed in the President’s budget. Neither bill provides funding to launch the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Account Program, or to establish dedicated staff within USDA’s Farm Service Agency to support new farmers.

The Senate bill also provides no additional funding for the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program, also known as the 2501 program. This is a significant blow to the underserved communities this program serves, particularly because program funding was cut in half in the most recent farm bill while also expanded to serve veteran farmers.

On the Rural Development front, we are pleased that the Senate bill rejects the proposed cuts to the popular and highly competitive Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program, which helps farmers launch new value-added enterprises. The Senate bill maintains level funding of $10.75 million. Though rejecting the cut proposed by the President, the Senate level is far below the $15 million provided in 2014.

We are disappointed to report that the bill provides no additional funding for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP), which is one of the few federal programs targeted specifically at launching new successful small businesses in Rural America.

Conservation and Energy Programs

Perhaps the biggest spot of the Senate funding bill is allowing the Conservation Stewardship Program to proceed at the level dictated by the 2014 Farm Bill, rather than cutting more than $200 million from this critical conservation program as included in the House bill and an even bigger cut proposed by the President. Every year, farmers and ranchers demonstrate an overwhelming demand to participate in CSP, and most are turned away due to lack of funding. The cuts to CSP will likely be an issue of debate as the House and Senate move to conference a final spending bill for next year.

Unfortunately, the Senate bill continues to cut the popular Environmental Quality Incentives Program. The Senate bill’s 18.4 percent cut, from $1.65 billion to $1.347 billion, is slightly larger than the 18 percent cut proposed in the House bill and by the President.

If included in the final agriculture appropriations bill for FY2016, the cuts to EQIP would also result in a cut of $21.2 million to the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program, a program whose funding is drawn from both CSP and EQIP. By comparison, the cuts to CSP and EQIP in the House bill would result in a 15 percent, or $35 million cut to RCPP.

Additionally, the Senate bill slashes the farm bill’s funding for the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, from $25 to only $3 million, which is 40 percent larger cut than the House proposed in its bill.

Fortunately, the Senate bill does not adopt the nearly $15 million in cuts to the mandatory farm bill spending for Rural Energy for America program as proposed in the House bill, but does reduce discretionary spending for loan guarantees from $1.4 million in 2015 to $500,000 in 2016.

The Senate bill increases funding for Conservation Operations from $846.4 million in FY 2015 to $855 million. Conservation Operations is the primary means by which USDA offers conservation technical assistance (CTA) to farmers, ranchers, and foresters. USDA’s ability to deliver conservation programs to producers depends heavily on on-the-ground CTA, which makes up the bulk of the Conservation Operations account.

In contrast to the Senate bill, the House bill would cut the Conservation Operations account to $832.9 million. We strongly support the Senate increase, and will be urging Congress to adopt it in final appropriations legislation.

Legislative Riders

In recent years, the annual appropriations bills have become the target for a multitude of policy riders that would normally be the purview of policy authorizing committees, not the spending committees. Legislating on spending bills in normal times has been frowned upon, but lately has become more the rule than the exception.

We are pleased that the Senate bill does not include any of the controversial policy riders proposed in the House bill that would delay implementation of the Farm Bill’s new conservation compliance requirement or exempt some of the largest farms in the country from payment limitations. These two egregious policy riders not only unnecessarily reopen the farm bill, but are bad federal policy that we will be strongly urging Congress to oppose in any final funding bill. See our previous blog post to better understand the impact of the egregious policy riders included in the House bill.

There is also a bright spot for the thousands of contract poultry and livestock producers in this country, who previous appropriations bills have targeted through the so-called “GIPSA Rider.” We explained this complicated and corrupt policy rider in a previous blog post, which was also the subject of a recent episode of Late Night with John Oliver. Since this rider was kept out of both the Senate and the House bill, USDA will now be allowed to move forward with issuing proposed regulations that better protect farmers from unfair, retaliatory, and anti-competitive practices that exist within the domestic contract poultry and livestock industry. We will be urging USDA to issue new proposed rules during the upcoming new fiscal year.

Although the Senate bill was able to keep out most of the controversial riders proposed by the House, the bill contains one rider that continues the attack on the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Both the Senate and the House bill seek to rein in “regulatory overreach by the Obama Administration by limiting the scope of the dietary guidelines and delaying the implementation of overly-broad menu labeling rules,” according to Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), the lead author of the Senate funding bill, this despite the fact that the Administration has yet to take any action on the advisory committee’s recommendations.

Committee Markup and Amendments

During today’s debate, several amendments were offered to the draft Senate funding bill as reported from Subcommittee.

Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) successfully pushed to provide temporary waivers to school districts requesting more time to meet USDA’s sodium and whole-grain guidelines for school meals. Similar language was included in last year’s funding bill and reinforced in the House bill as well.

Other successful amendments offered during markup include amendments to allow USDA to move forward with new animal welfare rules related to the confinement of marine animals, labeling genetically modified salmon if approved for sale by FDA, and a ban on federal inspection of horse slaughter facilities.

There was a long debate over Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) amendment that would direct USDA to issue a proposed animal welfare rule that has been delayed by opposition from marine theme parks such as Seaworld.

Senator Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) amendment to label so-called “Frankenfish” (or salmon that has been genetically modified) sailed through after she tampered concerns that this was not related to other GMO labeling debates happening, because corn doesn’t “swim” from field to field — though cross-contamination of GMO plants with non-GMO varieties is a an ongoing issue facing farmers across the country.

Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) successfully moved an amendment to ban federal inspection of horse slaughter facilities. The same amendment failed on a tie vote in the House full committee markup, so the two bills are in disagreement on this point.

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) offered a Democratic alternative to the Chairman’s bill, which would have restored funding for a variety of research, conservation, rural development, food safety, and other priorities — including restoring cuts to EQIP and increasing funding for SARE. The amendment failed to pass on partisan lines.

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) offered an amendment that would address the shortfall in funding for implementation of new food safety rules. The amendment would have provided an additional $60 million to FDA to implement changes to food safety regulations as mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act. Unfortunately, the Durbin amendment failed 14-16.

Next Steps

Now that both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have passed agriculture funding bills for FY 2016 out of committee, these bills should theoretically be heading to the floor of each chamber for consideration. While the full House has managed to pass six of their 12 appropriations bill, the full Senate has been unable to bring any of their committee passed bills to the floor for consideration. Senate and House Democrats continue to pressure Republicans to negotiate a larger budget deal that lifts the strict budget caps and replaces automatic budget cuts triggered by sequestration. Unless and until such negotiations begin, the appropriations process will ultimately grind to a halt.

There are thus two possible tracks ahead. One is to reach a grand bargain between the White House and House and Senate leadership on overall funding levels and then stitch all the appropriations bills together into one big end of the year omnibus spending bill. The other is to fail to reach a deal, forcing the passage of a year-long continuing resolution keeping this year’s funding levels and policy riders in place for another year. In either event, there is going to need to be a short-term continuing resolution passed by the end of September to keep the government in operation past October 1 while negotiations hopefully occur and reach a positive resolution.

If the track leading to an omnibus spending bill is taken, the agriculture bills just completed by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees will be the raw material for the agriculture section of the omnibus. Given the big differences between the bills, there will need to be a negotiated settlement on funding levels and policy riders. In addition, assuming the grand bargain generates a bigger overall funding allocation to the agriculture bill, negotiations will also take place on which programs get additional funding increases.

If the continuing resolution track is taken, then all of the work on this year’s appropriations bills will have been for naught, and Congress will have failed to do one of its most essential annual tasks.

Categories: Budget and Appropriations, Commodity, Crop Insurance & Credit Programs, Competition & Anti-trust, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Research, Education & Extension

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