THE budget mess just won't go away, partly because Congress keeps pushing back deadlines and also because it keeps passing political ideologies rather than commonsense bills.
The automatic cuts known as sequestration went into effect on March 1, including a cut of more than 5% to almost all of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's discretionary programs and nearly a 6% cut to farm bill commodity and conservation programs.
The continuing resolution (CR), which provides funding until Sept. 30, was signed into law March 27. It does provide some leeway on how the sequester cuts are carried out, such as providing funds to prevent the food safety inspector furloughs. It also provides real spending numbers rather than the suggestions contained in the recently passed House and Senate budget proposals.
The CR does increase some funding for research. Specifically, the Agriculture & Food Research Initiative is now funded at $274.8 million, $10 million more than in fiscal 2012. As a discretionary program, however, the initiative will be subject to USDA's 2.5% reduction within the next six months.
On the other hand, appropriations for research at land-grant universities (often called "capacity funding"), which fund USDA's Agricultural Research Service and extension activities, were reduced 7.61% from last year's funding levels.
The CR included an amendment introduced by Sens. Mark Pryor (D., Ark.) and Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.) that postpones the enforcement date for the Environmental Protection Agency's Spill Prevention Control & Countermeasures specifications. The rule will be postponed until the end of fiscal 2013 on Sept. 30.
There is still some hope for a grand bargain type of budget deal, something that the individual House and Senate budget bills and CR have yet to really address. However, with the differences between the House and Senate budgets and approaching need to raise the debt ceiling, there may be another chance on May 18.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) said a grand bargain could include raising the debt ceiling and would define a path forward for Congress on spending bills, including the farm bill and tax measures.
NSAC is hopeful that a grand bargain provides funding for programs that were left out of the farm bill extension and acknowledged that a grand bargain may finally set that magic number for the budgetary savings required from a new farm bill -- a crucial piece of information that agricultural leaders from both chambers of Congress seek before moving ahead on a farm bill this year.
"Clearly, with the two parties and the two houses of Congress far apart on farm bill basics, there is little hope for a new farm bill," NSAC said. "However, if there is a grand bargain, it could include a directive to both the House and Senate agriculture committees to achieve the same amount of savings by a certain date. Under such a scenario where the amount to be cut and the deadline are the same, the odds that a new five-year farm bill can happen this year go up considerably."
The question remains whether Congress will continue to tread water or if it will reach a mega deal that has the potential to resurrect the farm bill discussions.