November 1, 2011
On Tuesday, November 1, the Senate passed its fiscal year 2012 (FY12) agriculture appropriations bill as part of an appropriations “minibus,” which combined the Commerce-Justice-Science and the Transportation-Housing and Urban Development funding bills as well as the agriculture bill. The minibus passed 69-30, with 16 Republicans, 49 Democrats, and one Independent voting aye.
The House of Representatives has already passed both its Agriculture and Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bills, and has passed a Transportation-Housing and Urban Development bill out of Subcommittee. It is expected that the three bills will be reconciled in a conference committee of the House and Senate, likely to start on Thursday of this week.
The Senate agriculture bill, approved by the Appropriations Committee by voice vote on Wednesday, September 7, cuts farm bill mandatory conservation programs by 12 percent, or $726 million, on top of the half billion dollar cut contained in the FY 2011 agriculture appropriations bill. We oppose this raid on the farm bill, though note that it is better than the $1.1 billion raid on farm bill conservation funding in the House-passed bill.
Our previous reporting included a full description of the funding levels for conservation, rural development, credit, and research programs contained in the Senate bill.
As we reported last week, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) offered an amendment to the appropriations package to cut the total amount of funds available to USDA’s Rural Development Agency by $1 billion, representing a 40 percent cut to USDA’s rural development mission, a mission area that has already suffered an over 30 percent cut in the past decade. This cut would have been applied proportionally to each budget activity and rural development program.
We are happy to report that Senator Coburn’s amendment was defeated 85-13. Importantly, 44 Republicans joined all Democrats and Independents in defending USDA rural development program funding. NSAC joined an October 31 letter with hundreds of other organizations and individuals in opposition to the Coburn amendment.
Few of the amendments offered before the Senate left for its recess on October 21 came up for a vote this morning. There was concern last week that an amendment offered by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) might be voted upon this week. The amendment would have removed a provision that ensures that the uncharacteristically low funding levels provided for conservation programs in the 2012 funding bill would not be taken as the baseline funding levels throughout the next farm bill cycle. Fortunately, the amendment did not even get brought up today.
See our previous blog post for a list of some of the amendments that were offered but did not come up for a vote.
Next Step – Conference Committee
We will continue to monitor the appropriations process as the House and Senate bills go quickly to conference this week. Key issues include the following three.
1. GIPSA Rule
We will pay particularly close attention to a provision included in the House bill that would undo USDA’s GIPSA (Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Act) rulemaking process. That provision, which is not contained in the Senate bill, would prevent USDA from issuing a final rule to ensure a fair marketplace for small to medium-sized farms and ranches. NSAC strongly opposes the House legislative rider that would stop the fair competition rulemaking process in its tracks, a position we share in common with both the National Farmers Union and the American Farm Bureau Federation.
2. Funding Levels for Key Discretionary Programs
In addition, we will work to ensure that the funding levels contained in the House agriculture appropriations bill passed earlier this year do not become law. In nearly every case, the Senate funding levels are higher for each priority sustainable agriculture program. For instance, the Senate funding level relative the House funding level is $3 million higher for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, $3 million higher for Rural Micro-Entrepreneur Assistance, $3.5 million higher for Value-Added Producer Grants, $250,000 higher for ATTRA, and $57 million higher for conservation technical assistance.
3. Conservation Stewardship Program
On the farm bill conservation front, the single biggest difference between the two bills is on the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), where the Senate cuts the size of the program, but by $175 million less than the House bill does. The House bill’s cut to the CSP would place the 2012 CSP enrollment in jeopardy of being cancelled or scaled back to just a small fraction of the normal enrollment level.
The current continuing resolution, which is keeping the government running at close to FY11 levels, expires on November 18. Congress must either pass all 12 annual appropriations bills by then, or pass another continuing resolution to buy more time. With the passage of the latest minibus, the Senate has now passed four FY12 appropriations bills, while the House has passed six.
The current plan seems to be for the Senate to pass a series of “minibuses” and then go to conference with the House on each set of bills, thereby getting around the need to take separate appropriation measures back to the House floor, where their ultimate fate could be uncertain. Conference reports are not subject to amendment, and thus present a possible path forward for the House Republican leadership to finish the government funding cycle for the year without any House floor amendments that could lead to a government shutdown or endless stream of continuing resolutions. Time will tell whether the minibus-straight-to-conference strategy will succeed and whether the process can be completed without any mid or long-term continuing resolution being required.