Inside Washington: Congress returns to work on funding bills

With only a few weeks left of legislative work, Congress must determine how long to allow for a continuing resolution.

Congress returned from August recess this week with just over three weeks until the end of the fiscal year. Debate over funding the government after Sept. 30 will likely dominate the agenda, with a continuing resolution (CR) funding the government until after the elections seen as the most likely resolution.

For fiscal 2017, both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have already passed their respective agriculture appropriations bills. However, neither bill has been considered on the floor of the House and Senate, and now time for that has run out.

To avoid a government shutdown on Oct. 1, Congress will likely pass a CR to extend current funding levels. Presently, debate is heating up over how long the CR will last – through early to mid-December, or into the next Presidency (through March, or even for the entire year)?

In an effort to prevent any new spending and to limit decision-making during the lame-duck session, the most conservative wing of the Republican Party (known as the Freedom Caucus) had been urging leadership to pass a longer-term CR that lasts into the next Administration. In contrast, most appropriators (including senior Republican leaders) prefer a shorter-term CR that would allow them to finish the work of passing a new appropriations package for fiscal 2017.

Last week, Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D., N.V.) stated that Senate Democrats are unified in their support for a CR that runs through December only. The Senate requires 60 votes to end debate on a measure, so despite being in the minority, Senate Democrats hold considerable power in this debate.

Regardless of whether the CR lasts until December or into the new year, Congress will need to pass a second bill – either an omnibus appropriations package for 2017 or another CR – in order to fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year.

Congress may also consider legislation to reauthorize child nutrition programs. Congress revisits child nutrition program legislation every five years in a single omnibus bill known as the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, or Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization (CNR). The 2010 CNR (also known as The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act) expired on Sept. 30, 2015, meaning we have already gone a near full year past the reauthorization deadline.

The Senate Agriculture Committee marked up and unanimously passed out of committee a bipartisan children nutrition bill in January 2016. Titled “Improving Child Nutrition Integrity & Access Act of 2016,” the Senate committee bill expands summer feeding programs, increases the ability for tribal schools and feeding programs to serve culturally significant foods and compromises on the long-running battle over nutrition standards.

Unfortunately, the Senate process stalled out this spring as the Senate Agriculture Committee and the Congressional Budget Office struggled to address discrepancies in program cost estimates. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) said some in the Capitol have suggested that the Senate Agriculture Committee is working to broker a deal around a modified version of its bill, maintaining the core priorities and the strong bipartisan support from members. “If the rumored deal is successful, the Senate CNR bill could see floor time in the coming weeks,” NSAC said.

NSAC did say getting a Senate bill to the President’s desk “remains slim.” The House passed its own controversial bill in committee in May of this year. The version included a three-state pilot to block grant school meal programs, and many groups, including the School Nutrition Assn. and leading nutrition and anti-hunger groups, opposed the House bill.

“If there is not a major breakthrough between now and the end of the year, the CNR legislative process will start over in January of 2017 with a new Congress,” NSAC said.

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