Farm bill funding escapes budget ax

Initial indications from House and Senate are that the farm bill will not be asked to come up with huge budget cuts.

Both the House and Senate Budget Committees revealed their budget plans last week and it appears the agricultural community could escape without drastic cuts, and the reductions may not even occur.

The budget resolutions are used to set spending limits for the next fiscal year as well as to lay out 10-year blueprints for spending and revenue. In many years Budget Committees have been unable to agree on budget parameters, with the last Senate Republican budget coming in 2006.

The Senate bill has no-reopening of the farm bill and the House resolution calls for a total of $1 billion in savings over 10 years, which is .001 of farm bill spending over that same period.

“They walked up to the edge of the cliff and decided to walk back from it,” said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, of the budget committees’ decisions to not revisit the farm bill.

“From the $20 billion cut being opening talked about on the Hill [the week prior] to either zero or $1 billion, it is clear the farm bill coalition has gotten the message across,” Hoefner said. “Hopefully the final resolution will leave the farm bill out of the equation.”

Like past House budgets, the plans include a proposal to convert the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) into a 'block grant' program.

Feeding America said that four out of five SNAP recipients is either working or not expected to work, including 66% of recipients who are children, elderly or disabled.

"While proponents of block grants argue that programs are more effective and better suited to local needs, in fact states already have considerable flexibility in administering SNAP.  The primary consequence of a block grant would result in eroding the federal commitment that SNAP families are eligible to receive the same level of food assistance regardless of where they live," said chief executive officer Bob Aiken.

Senate and House leaders hope to agree next month on a compromise, but without reconciliation requirements the resolutions are essentially just GOP wish lists.

“It is our fervent hope that if there is a final resolution that is conferenced between the House and Senate, that sanity will prevail and the farm bill will be left alone. We won’t know the answer to that until sometime in April after the two week Congressional recess, but our fingers are crossed,” Hoefner added.

Leaving 2016 spending limits where they are, instead of lowering them, should make it easier for appropriators to agree on spending bills for the agricultural department as well as other agencies and departments.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was before the Senate Appropriations Committee March 17 and reminded members that USDA’s budget is less than its full budget in fiscal year 2010, and not far off 2009 levels.

“We have done a good job of managing on limited resources,” which is difficult with high mandatory line item expenditures including fire suppression, rental assistance and food stamps, he added. Vilsack said he expects the agency to be called on to do more, but said he’ll try to be creative in spreading out resources as much as possible. n

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