THE budget committees of both the House and Senate revealed their budget plans last week, and it appears that the agricultural community could escape drastic cuts. In fact, 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 0.001% of farm bill spending over that same period.
"They walked up to the edge of the cliff and decided to walk back from it," Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said of the budget committees' decisions not to revisit the farm bill.
"From the $20 billion cut being openly talked about on the Hill (the week earlier) 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 four out of five SNAP recipients are either working or are 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," Feeding America chief executive officer Bob Aiken said. "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."
Senate and House leaders hope to agree next month on a compromise, but without reconciliation requirements, the resolutions are essentially just Republican wish lists.
"It is our fervent hope that if there is a final resolution that is conferenced between the House and Senate, 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 U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as other agencies and departments.
During a March 17 Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack reminded members that USDA's budget now is less than its full budget was in fiscal 2010 and isn't far off the 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 explained.
Vilsack said he expects USDA to be called on to do more, but said he'll try to be creative in spreading out resources as much as possible.