Between all the dynamics of Pope Francis' visit to Washington last week followed by House Speaker John Boehner's resignation announcement, the focus on Capitol Hill now turns to the looming possibility that the government could be facing another shutdown this week if Congress fails to adopt a budget or pass a temporary funding measure to keep the nation moving forward.
Lawmakers have until Midnight Sept. 30 to prevent another shutdown similar to the one they caused in October two years ago. Falling short of that, or if the President fails to sign funding legislation if one is passed by Congress, the nation will once again find itself stuck in a legislative stalemate.
Even if Congress manages to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) on Monday, which the Senate is scheduled to consider, looming shutdowns are possible until a permanent budget is adopted, and with the current division over issues like funding for Planned Parenthood, a deeply divided Congress may require time to settle differences before a new budget is sent to the White House.
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An attempt to pass a CR on Friday last week failed, and some are betting Monday's effort at temporary funding will meet the same fate. So, what happens to agriculture if a shutdown happens, either this week or in the near future?
Unlike the government shutdown in 2013, some major differences involve funding for agriculture programs that will affect USDA and the agriculture industry-at-large.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is warning that without funding on Oct. 1 USDA will not be able make new farm and rural development loans, most USDA offices will close, and many crop reports will not be issued affecting farmers and rural communities.
And that's just a start.
Food Stamps Vulnerable
Millions of Americans who rely on food stamps, or what is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP funding, which is managed by USDA, may find themselves with empty pantries.
During the government shutdown in 2013, USDA relied on already appropriated funds to keep SNAP funding rolling out to those who rely on it. But this time those funds have dried up, meaning SNAP funds will not be transferred to the debit cards of eligible households in Oct. so they can purchase groceries.
USDA officials announced last week those funds will not begin rolling out again until a final budget or emergency funding is approved by Congress and signed by the President.
NSAC reported last week that hopes for a Continuing Resolution are remotely possible, but given the climate of House Republicans over funding for Planned Parenthood, a shutdown may be supported by a majority of conservatives in an effort to bring President Obama to the table to negotiate the issue.
In what some are calling a surprise move, a group of 11 freshman Republican House members sent a letter to House leadership opposing a shutdown late last week, so it is unclear what will happen if and when a CR reaches the House for consideration. Add to that the effect House Speaker Boehner's resignation may have on the issue this week. Some speculate a CR may not be presented in the House on Monday as a result.
Assuming a CR is adopted and signed by the President, emergency funding will allow the government to operate until Dec. 11, but before that deadline Congress may be looking at an Omnibus spending bill to continue funding to the end of the fiscal year 2016.
Agriculture Funding in Jeopardy
Regardless whether a CR is adopted or even if an Omnibus spending bill is approved that will allow the government to operate through either the end of the year or through the fiscal year, agriculture could still suffer.
According to the NSAC report last week, while CRs generally extend all government funding at current levels, they do contain anomalies. These are provisions that are added for one reason or another to change policy, increase or decrease funding for specific accounts, and extend expiring programs, depending on the whims of lawmakers.
In the case of the CR being considered by the Senate, a few anomalies affect USDA. They include:
• Section 109: Affects all government agencies and has the effect of limiting the number of loans FSA can issue during the duration of the CR. NSAC opposes this provision being included in the CR because the fall and winter is when most farmers need loans to prepare for the next season.
• Section 116: Increases funding for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program to cover higher food package costs.
• Section 135: Appropriates $700 million in emergency funding for wildfire suppression activates and to refund other Forest Service accounts already raided to pay for firefighting activities.