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Cromnibus Impacts Ag Spending, USDA Actions

Final budget limits USDA from having secondary beef checkoff, making FSA office closures and requiring EPA to withdraw interpretive rule.

Thursday night the House approved what’s been coined the cronimbus spending bill which will fund the government until September 2015 and the Senate was poised to send it to the President after they approved the measure shortly thereafter.

Earlier in the week appropriators in the House and Senate emerged from weeks of backroom talks and 24 hours of tense, final negotiations among top Congressional leaders having penciled out an agreement joining the continuing resolution and omnibus spending bills on a $1.1 trillion year-end spending bill that will fund the federal government through September 2015.

Thursday night the House passed the bill by a margin of just 219-206.

For agriculture, in total, the bill provides $20.6 billion in discretionary funding – $305 million below the fiscal year 2014 enacted level – while cutting back lower-priority programs and rescinding unused funds. View a summary of Congressional direction to federal agencies here.

Bob McCan, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said they were happy to see many of their priorities addressed. “It is clear that Congress recognizes and agrees that the Administration’s regulatory zeal has gone too far and if left unchecked, it will impede the economic growth of rural America.”

Although the deal fell short of prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from moving forward on its full waters of the U.S. rule revamp, it does direct the EPA to withdraw the interpretative rule on conservation practices exempt from regulation.

“The EPA’s Interpretative rule would have had unintended consequences for agricultural producers nationwide, making the Natural Resources Conservation Service a regulatory agency by prescribing limited production practices,” said McCan. “While we, along with all of agriculture, were disappointed Congress did not defund EPA’s larger Waters of the United States efforts, this was a first step demonstrating the concerns of landowners.”

For NCBA, they also scored two big legislative wins with the restrictions on USDA implementing a secondary beef checkoff as well as calling for recommendations on how to fix the mandatory country-of-origin labeling to meet trade obligations.

The National Farmers Union and United States Cattlemen’s Assn. said there were very concerned that the report language included on COOL could be used as an opportunity to stop the appeals process at the World Trade Organization or re-open the legislation that mandated COOL, “both of which are unacceptable,” noted a letter they sent to legislators. “Congress should not intervene in the WTO process.”

Congress continues to have concerns with USDA’s proposed Farm Service Agency office closures, and the budget agreement says it “does not permit the closure of 250 Farm Service Agency county offices or the elimination of 815 non-federal staff years,” as proposed in the President’s budget.” Stating that the budget request has not provided enough rationale or a timeline for implementation, Congress placed a temporary moratorium on closings and employee reallocations until a comprehensive assessment of workload based on new farm bill requirements could be conducted by the agency.

The bill provides $2.7 billion for agriculture research programs, including the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. This includes a slight increase in funding for the Agriculture Food Research Initiative (AFRI) bringing total FY 2015 funding levels to $325 million. Additionally, there is a policy provision included in the bill that would exempt AFRI research grants from the new matching requirements included in the final farm bill, but require all other competitive research programs to comply with the new matching funds policy.

According to Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the 2014 Farm Bill cut $4 billion from voluntary conservation assistance programs, or over $6 billion when accounting for sequestration, and the new spending bill piles on, taking hundreds of millions more, primarily from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program.

In total, the new bill reduces the total number of new acres that can be enrolled in CSP this fiscal year by 2.3 million, or nearly a quarter of the total acreage recently authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill. This draconian and short-sighted cut results in a minuscule $7 million in funds the bill then spends on other programs, while its effect on CSP is to cut the program by $402 million over the next ten years, NSAC said.

“This is legislating at its worst, denying thousands of farmers and ranchers the opportunity to participate in the high level conservation program for no reason other than wanting $7 million to pay for unrelated USDA expenses and throwing $395 million out the window in the process,” said Hoefner.

In the coming days I’ll be following up on the granted wish list of many pertinent ag policy riders that made their way into the final bill.

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