Follow the dollars

FUNDING, NOT FACES, WILL DRIVE US AG COMMITTEE AGENDAS

with the november election results US agriculture is facing dramatic changes in the congressional committees that oversee farm policy and an even bigger change in the policy environment.  

In the US Senate, agriculture chair Blanche Lincoln was the only committee leader defeated in the election.  In the US House of Representatives, 16 out of 28 Democrats on the ag committee lost their races – the worst blood-bath of any committee in the House.

Since the House Republicans also regained the majority, all the House chairmanships will return to Republican hands.  Collin Peterson will lose the ag committee chairmanship, effectively ending his attempt to rewrite the US farm bill in 2011 rather than 2012 when it expires.

evaporating budgets
Beyond the new faces, however, the issue of budget deficits has changed the world in which committees must operate – and agriculture programs face some unique challenges. 

The Obama administration is talking about cutting government spending by five to seven percent depending on the program.  The Republicans have pledged to cut discretionary spending by seven percent. 

In December, the bipartisan deficit commission’s chairmen proposed $4 trillion in budget savings over the next decade, including $3 billion per year in agriculture program cuts to be achieved by reducing farm subsidies, Conservation Security Program funding and export market development.

Meanwhile, some of the TEA Party affiliates recently elected to Congress want cuts that go much deeper, and that has particular implications for agriculture.

The bulk of the US Department of Agriculture budget goes to food and nutrition programs, not farm subsidies – and an attempt to cut nutrition spending significantly could cost  the support of the nutrition community that has historically delivered key votes to pass previous farm bills.

On the other hand, failure to cut USDA spending enough could incur the wrath of newly elected TEA Party adherents.  A coalition of members who normally  oppose ag programs with either the nutrition interests or the TEA Partiers could result in enough votes to block ag committee legislation.

current programs at risk
There’s a second problem.  The congressional budget process sets baselines for funding programs.  If a committee wants to create a new program or beef up an existing program, it is supposed to offset any spending increase above the baseline by cutting funds elsewhere, making a program more efficient, or finding new sources of income.

However, 37 current USDA programs don’t have baseline funding.  The shortfall is more than $9 billion and affects most of the energy programs in the last farm bill, the permanent disaster program (SURE), the wetlands conservation program and more.

In fact, many analysts believe there will be a cut in baseline funding which could short  agriculture programs even more than the current $9 billion.  It’s expected that Frank Lucas, the incoming chairman of the House agriculture committee, will try to defend the ag’s baseline from further cuts, but that task may be beyond him.  As long as the TEA Partiers keep the pressure on, the dynamic among House Republicans will force cuts to every program.

Off the record, some sources are already talking in terms of “making sure agriculture doesn’t get singled out” for deeper cuts than other sectors of the federal budget.

“Tight budget times produce the most dramatic changes,” says one farm bill expert.  “With limited money, the committees look at priorities differently.” 

In this year’s tight budget climate, the primary challenge for the agriculture committees will be deciding how to share a smaller pot of money among  competing programs. 

US farm groups are already staking out their positions on funding cuts.  The National Corn Growers Association is willing to give up direct payments, a position at odds with some of the big Southern commodity interests.  In a significant departure from the American Farm Bureau Federation’s stance, the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation has staked out a position similar to NCGA’s.  As the winter meeting season progresses, more groups will weigh in, and the battle lines in Congress will become clearer.

environmental arguments
Beyond budget battles, the agriculture agenda for the new Congress is likely to focus on at least one other area, especially in the House: environmental regulations.  Conservatives cite the Environmental Protection Agency as an agency they believe has exceeded its authority.  One example is EPA’s administration of the Clean Water Act, which is a major concern to Midwestern farmers because of the issue of nutrient runoff. 

It’s not hard to imagine the House agriculture committee taking a hard look at environmental regulations and their effects on US farming as a lead-up to an attempt to cut the EPA’s budget.  For the conservatives and TEA Partiers currently riding high in the Congress, that’s a win-win result. •