September 9, 2019
Every August, Members of Congress head home for a month long legislative break known as “August recess” – which typically spills over through the Labor Day holiday. Now that August has come and gone, Members in both the House and the Senate are returning to the capital with a full schedule ahead of them.
What’s at the forefront of the legislative agenda this fall? First and foremost, Congress will be pressed to pass an appropriations package to fund the federal government and prevent another government shutdown as the end of the fiscal year fast approaches. The current fiscal year ends at the strike of midnight on September 30, and Congress is already months behind schedule in getting new funding bills passed and signed into law. With just 15 legislative days left in the fiscal year (FY), a short-term funding bill (or “Continuing Resolution (CR)”) will almost certainly be needed to extend FY 2019 spending levels until Congress can pass a final funding bill for FY 2020.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has been following the appropriations process closely since it kicked off earlier this spring, but it’s not the only federal policy issue on our minds for the fall. NSAC, along with our partners at the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) and many other NSAC members, is also actively working to advance a new Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization (CNR), as well as working on a myriad of farm bill implementation and administrative/rule making issues that are likely to kick into high gear over the coming months.
In our 2019 “Welcome Back, Congress” post, we detail where sustainable agriculture priorities are on the legislative front, focusing on the FY 2020 appropriations process and CNR. However, NSAC is also actively engaged on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue and is working with the White House and federal agencies on a number of administrative and regulatory issues.
For example, we expect several key rulemakings on farm bill changes to conservation programs to be released this fall, in addition to rules on payment limitations and livestock competition. Ensuring that farmers voices are centered in these efforts will be a top priority for our coalition. For ongoing farm bill implementation coverage, check out the Farm Bill section of our blog.
In June, the House Appropriations Committee passed their agriculture appropriations bill for FY 2020, including in it important funding boosts for sustainable agriculture research, outreach and technical assistance for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, local food systems, food safety, and value-added agriculture. The Senate, however, chose to wait for the budget deal to be finalized before writing and “marking-up” any of their funding bills. The two-year budget deal that was signed into law just before the August recess cleared the path for the Senate to begin their work on their appropriations bills.
Over recess, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-VT) set topline “302(b) allocations” for each of the 12 appropriations bills that fund Executive Branch agencies and Departments, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Senate Appropriations Subcommittees have been working throughout recess to put together appropriations packages that will be considered and debated (“marked up”) as Congress returns to work this month. We expect the Agriculture Appropriations bill to be marked up the week of September 16th.
After the Senate Subcommittee markup, we expect the full Committee to markup and pass a bill (containing an agriculture spending bill) shortly thereafter. Funding allocations by specific program have yet to be made, but given that there is a $15 billion difference between the House Agriculture Appropriations bill and the two-year budget deal, it is certain that funding for at least some of the sustainable agriculture priorities will be on the chopping block.
Given the rapidly approaching close to the current fiscal year (September 30), Congress, will almost certainly have to pass a short-term funding bill. NSAC will continue to engage in the process as things move forward in the Senate, and once the process of conferencing bills between the two chambers begins.
Congress typically revisits child nutrition programs and policies every five years in a single omnibus bill known as the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, or “CNR” for short. This bill authorizes a litany of programs, including school feeding and farm to school programs.
Earlier this spring, all indicators suggested that Congress was making progress toward finally updating the nation’s outdated child nutrition laws. Both the House and Senate held hearings on child nutrition programs, and we saw a flurry of “marker bill” introductions leading up to the August recess. NSAC has worked closely with our members at NFSN on a CNR advocacy campaign, and are currently championing two CNR marker bills: the Farm to School Act of 2019 (S. 2026, H.R. 3562), and the Kids Eat Local Act (H.R. 3220, S. 1817). To learn more about the CNR and NSAC’s priorities for CNR check out our blog from July.
At this point, however, many questions remain as to whether or not the political will to get a new CNR done during this Congress will materialize. Neither the Senate Agriculture Committee nor the House Education and Labor Committee have introduced a new CNR bill. The Senate Agriculture Committee has presumably been working on a new CNR package, but how much progress has been made towards achieving Chairman Pat Roberts’ (R-KS) goal of developing a bipartisan bill is still unknown.
In the other chamber, the House Education and Labor committee is taking a “wait and see” approach vis-a-vis the Senate, focusing their time and energy in the interim on reauthorizing the Older Americans Act. If the Senate Agriculture Committee were to introduce and markup a CNR bill, the House would very likely start working on their own package. Further complicating the process, is USDA’s recent proposal to revise Categorical Eligibility in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. This has raised partisan tensions in Congress and may have lowered the political will to move forward on a bipartisan CNR package this year.
Congress is a dynamic place. There is still plenty of time for both the Senate and House to come together and pass a bipartisan CNR that supports farm to school efforts and keeps food on the plates of hungry families. The biggest enemy at this point is time; Congress realistically has until early 2020 to develop and pass a bipartisan CNR. After that, the politics of the presidential campaign are likely to dominate discussions and mental space on the hill, and nationally.