Senate moves on Agriculture Spending Bill

Senate Agriculture Spending Bill Unveiled
By National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

On Wednesday, September 7, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed its fiscal year (FY) 2012 Agriculture Appropriations bill by voice vote.

The Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee received an overall allocation of $19.78 billion for discretionary spending in FY 2012, translating to a $192 million reduction below the already low FY 2011 levels. The House bill passed earlier this year was based on a much lower, pre-budget deal allocation.

For a comparison of the House and Senate bills, you can download the latest version of our annual appropriations chart.

Raid on Conservation Programs

The Senate bill cuts from the farm bill mandatory conservation programs by 12 percent, over $700 million, on top of the half billion dollar cut contained in the FY 2011 agriculture appropriations bill. This is better than the over $1 billion cut by the House bill, but still a huge cut. Conservation and renewable energy were the only farm bill mandatory programs cut. Commodity, crop insurance, and export subsidies were left unscathed, as was the SNAP or food stamp program.

We have seen this ritual before. Shortchange the allocation to the agricultural spending bill by a huge amount, knowing that though the Committee must increase spending on food safety and feeding programs, it can pay for it by raiding farm bill mandatory conservation money. If this were happening in a budget bill or in the farm bill, all mandatory spending would be on the table for potential cuts and there would be an honest discussion about the relative merits. But in the Appropriations Committee, only conservation is made to take the fall with not even so much as a moment’s consideration of a farm bill-wide review. This is fundamentally wrong and unfair, and the appropriators should quite frankly be ashamed of their actions.

The massive cut to mandatory conservation spending contained in this bill is a testament to how broken Washington is when it comes to budgetary matters. Shortchanging the agriculture appropriations allocation such that the funding of important items like feeding programs and food safety requires raiding farm bill direct spending to make up for shortfalls is the type of gaming and double dealing that gives Congress a bad name. Even worse, though, is the Committee’s inability, once it decides to raid the farm bill, to put everything on the table and engage in a thoughtful and balanced review.

Conservation Details

In the bill approved by the Senate Committee, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) would be cut $35 million relative to its FY 2012 farm bill-mandated level. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) would be cut $350 million. The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) and Grasslands Reserve Program (GRP) would be cut by roughly $180 million and $46 million, respectively, while the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) would be cut $50 million and $35 million, respectively. In the case of WRP, WHIP, and GRP, these cuts are as high as 30, 40, and 50 percent. As in the House bill, the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP) would be zeroed out.

A number of mandatory renewable energy programs that were eliminated in the House bill were funded, at least partially, in the Senate bill. The Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) would not be scaled back, left free to spend all $248 million in the baseline. While the Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) was not zeroed out in the Senate bill (as it nearly was in the House bill), it was only partially funded at $38.5 million, roughly 50 percent of its FY 11 level. Several other energy title programs were scaled back.

In addition to the cuts to mandatory conservation funding, the bill would cut the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) conservation operations budget that pays for technical assistance by $44 million to $828 million. NRCS uses conservation operations money to provide technical assistance to farmers and ranchers in the development of conservation plans and enrollment in conservation programs. Lack of adequate technical assistance funding has become a chronic problem at USDA.

Rural Development and Farm Loans

While the Senate bill does not cut rural development and farm credit programs to the extent that the House bill does, it nonetheless limits a number of programs that help rural communities thrive. The bill cuts the Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) program to $16 million, roughly 40 of its authorized level and 20 percent less than what went out the door in 2010. The bill would sustain mandatory spending for the Rural Micro-entrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP) at $3 million; however, it would not provide the additional $6 million in discretionary funding requested by USDA to bring the program back to its FY 10 level. The Rural Business Enterprise Grants were cut by nearly a quarter and Rural Business and Industry loans by nearly 20 percent.

Like the House bill, the Senate bill would fund direct operating loans at close to $1.05 billion, as requested in the President’s budget. Unfortunately, it also matches the House bill’s funding for direct farm ownership (DFO) loans at $475 million, which is 27 percent lower than 2010 levels. The FY 2011 agriculture appropriations bill first reduced the DFO loan program level from $650 million to $475 million. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in a $129 million backlog of approved applications for DFO loans, nearly half of which are beginning farmers. The chances of estate deals remaining in play after long delays in receiving approved loans are slim, resulting in the loss of new farming opportunities.

Research, Education, and Extension

Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill maintains level funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program at $19.2 million. While this is equal to FY 2010 and FY 2011 funding, it does not include the $10 million requested by USDA to launch the SARE federal-state matching program. SARE advocates have long waited for the matching grant program to get underway and were delighted by the Administration’s request and early positive action on the request by the Appropriations Committees, only to have those hopes dashed by the new budget cutting climate. Level funding in this climate, however, is something of a victory for which we can be thankful.

Funding for the Organic Transitions Research Program, Regional IPM Centers, and Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) would also be maintained at the levels provided in FY 2011. The farm bill mandatory funding for the Organic Research and Education Initiative (OREI), Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), and Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) were left intact.

Finally, the bill would fund the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service program (popularly known as ATTRA) at $2.25 million in FY 2012. While not the $2.8 million funding level the program has maintained for many years, it is $2.25 million more than the zero dollars the program received in FY 2011 and thus an important step forward. The House bill funds the program at the same $2.25 million, which should mean the program will be on its way back to close to normal as soon as the final appropriations bill is passed later this year.

Fair Competition and Local & Regional Food Systems

In June, we reported on a number of attacks on fair competition and local food system development contained in the House Agriculture Appropriations bill. These took the form of amendments to prevent USDA from spending any money to implement the Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) rule and the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative. There was also additional language in the House report language attacking the very idea of local and regional food systems. As was expected, neither the Senate bill nor the accompanying report language included any language to prevent or discourage the implementation of the GIPSA rule or local and regional food system development.

The GIPSA fair competition rule could still be the subject of amendments when the bill reaches the Senate floor and we will remain vigilant in our defense of the pro-farmer measure.

Moving Forward

Before final appropriations levels are set for FY 2012, the Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill must pass through the full Senate, be reconciled with the House bill, and be signed by the President. The more likely scenario, however, is that all 12 appropriations bills, including agriculture, will be wrapped into a single omnibus appropriations package to be passed later in the fall. In the interim, Congress is preparing to pass a continuing resolution to temporarily extend FY 2011 funding levels into FY 2012 and give itself more time to finalize the appropriations bills.

Concurrent with the appropriations process, the 12-member special committee charged with coming up with at least $1.2 trillion in budget savings before Thanksgiving will be meeting to develop their plan. All authorizing committees, including the Senate and House Agriculture Committees have until October 14 to submit formal recommendations to the special committee. While the special committee could theoretically propose to further reduce discretionary spending, it is widely expected to concentrate its efforts on mandatory spending and tax expenditures. Given the Senate Appropriations Committee action yesterday, we hope the special committee is paying attention: mandatory conservation programs have already been forced to take massive hits, so any further Farm Bill mandatory spending cuts included in the special committee’s recommendations should come from other Farm Bill titles.

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