LEADERS of the House and Senate agriculture committees were backed by more than 400 different agriculture, conservation and nutrition groups to not open the farm bill, and it seems the budget committees granted their wishes — for now.
Last Wednesday, House and Senate negotiators released their compromise budget resolution, which sets out spending levels and policy goals for 2016 and beyond.
The final conference report does not include budget reconciliation instructions to the agriculture committees to cut mandatory farm bill spending in 2016.
Heading into conference committee negotiations, it was unclear whether or not the final deal would require such cuts. The House budget resolution instructed the agriculture committee to cut $1 billion over 10 years, while the Senate budget resolution contained no such instructions.
The final conference report provides no relief from budget caps and automatic annual spending cuts, known as "sequestration," which Congress established in the Budget Control Act of 2011.
The spending cap for the annual agriculture appropriations bill is level with current funding, although current funding relies heavily on making cuts through a budget gimmick called "changes in mandatory program spending" to the farm bill's mandatory conservation spending. The allocated level for agriculture assumes either major cuts to U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food & Drug Administration programs or continued reliance on cutting conservation funding for farmers.
Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) noted that the nation is finally coming out of its financial hole and has eliminated two-thirds of the annual deficit.
"We're at a place now where we can responsibly revisit policy of sequestration and what it's going to take to regrow the economy," Stabenow said.
She said if legislators just took the Congressional Budget Office baseline from March rather than January, there would be no need for sequestration. However, for now, the conference committee does not appear to want to take that path.
The House and Senate agriculture appropriations subcommittees are expected to debate and pass their respective agricultural appropriations bills in May.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made a strong case for Congress not to cut USDA's budget by 1-2% like it has in each of the last six years.
He explained that he has worked hard to oversee the agency and be wise with resources, but the trend in Congress is to impose reductions on operating budgets. When he started the job, Vilsack said 105,000 people were working at USDA; the most recent number is around 85,000.
"Over the course of time, it begins to take its toll on the services we provide," Vilsack said. "At some point, Congress needs to recognize they can't keep nickel-and-diming the department and still expect great service and immediate responses."
Vilsack said he understands the current fiscal environment but noted that other agencies aren't being asked to make the same cuts year after year.
"I'm just asking for a little equity here. I feel like the kid who gets picked on every year. I guess that kid went to karate class and is ready to fight back. I do not expect the ag department to shoulder all the burden of all the other departments," Vilsack said.