Ag Budget Cuts Not So Deep

House Subcommittee Funding Bill for USDA Cuts Less Than Trump Budget Plan

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Congress is debating funding levels for fiscal year 2018, which begins in October. While rejecting the president's request for deeper cuts, Congress is getting attacked by some conservative groups as well. (DTN file photo by Nick Scalise)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Agriculture isn't likely to see the kind of federal budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration if the discretionary appropriations bill approved Tuesday by a subcommittee is any indication.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee for Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies advanced a bill funding fiscal year 2018 discretionary programs for USDA and other agencies at just more than $20 billion, cutting $1.1 billion from last year's bill, or about 5.2% less than current funding levels.

If the appropriations hold, USDA would receive about $876 million less than this year's discretionary budget. The funding bill, which was approved in a voice vote, advanced to the full committee. The committee is advancing multiple appropriation bills this week.

Yet the $1.1 billion spending cut, if it holds, will be $3.7 billion less than President Trump's proposed spending cut just for USDA. The Trump budget calls for a $4.8 billion cut from USDA discretionary programs, which the White House intended to use to offset spending increases in defense and homeland security, including funding for a border wall.

Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., chairman of the subcommittee, acknowledged the need "to get our financial house in order and find the means to address our ever-growing deficit." Still, Aderholt said he could not go along with the president's request to eliminate funding for several rural development or foreign food aid programs.

"I, like many of you on this committee, come from a rural district," Aderholt said.

The bill also does not go along with a Trump administration proposal to close as many as 17 USDA Agricultural Research Service facilities across the country. Aderholt said research funding remains critical to protecting the food supply and ensuring agriculture can continue to compete globally.

A $1.6 billion funding for areas such as the Farm Service Agency and conservation programs will ensure every county FSA office if fully staffed, Aderholt added.

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As groups such as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition highlighted, the bill leaves intact mandatory farm bill funding for both the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program. "The subcommittee bill also rejects the president's call to slash the discretionary conservation operations budget, which USDA uses to help producers write and implement conservation plans," NSAC stated.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., thanked Aderholt for not adhering to what Bishop called "the president's draconian request."

Bishop cited several programs, especially in foreign food aid, that the president had proposed to eliminate. The Food for Peace program is budgeted for $1.4 billion while the foreign school food aid program, known as McGovern Dole, is funded at $185 million. "While both programs are below the FY '17 level, they are far above zero, and I hope that we will be able to work to increase funding for both as we go through this process," Bishop said.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission would be funded at $248 million, about $2 million less than this year, though the Republican chairman of the CFTC had requested $33 million more than approved by the subcommittee.

The bill does not include any language that would block USDA from implementing the livestock marketing rules pending at the U.S. Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration.

The bill has some other provisions as well. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., added language that would prevent Chinese chicken imports from being used for the school lunch program. DeLauro said she was concerned about the food safety risks of that imported chicken, which USDA is just now drafting rules to allow.

DeLauro also added a provision that would prevent school-lunch staff from "shaming" a student who does not have enough money for school lunches. This has been an issue spotlighted in different news articles.

Aderholt, in a joint visit with reporters afterward, said he had not received any political pressure to follow along with the president's budget request. "No one's come to me, as far as any member on the floor or anything I have heard anyway, criticizing us," Aderholt said.

Instead, Bishop said, "I've heard sighs of relief from many of the stakeholders in agriculture, who are the American people, because having the highest quality, safest and most abundant food and fiber anywhere in the world is something that most Americans want."

Those comments came after the group Heritage Action issued a scathing news release Wednesday attacking House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, for not offering specific mandatory program cuts to the leadership of the House Budget Committee.

The House Budget Committee had delayed its vote on a 2018 budget resolution that was expected to detail as much as $200 billion in cuts to mandatory federal programs, such as direct farm payments or food stamps. Such spending reductions would give the House latitude to start working on a tax reform measure that focuses on large tax cuts. Heritage action pointed a finger at Conaway, saying the Agriculture Committee's unwillingness to offer budget cuts to mandatory programs is hurting the ability of Congress to start working on a tax-cut package.

Rachel Millard, a spokeswoman for the House Agriculture Committee, told DTN that Conaway is committed to passing a budget and advance a tax reform bill, "and to suggest otherwise is absurd."

Millard added, "With the farm economy in one of the biggest slides since the Great Depression, the chairman has been advocating for a budget that won't exacerbate the conditions of our farmers and ranchers in rural America and that won't impede development of the next farm bill. That may not fit with Heritage Action's long-running campaign against America's farmers and ranchers, but it certainly isn't the reason we still don't have a budget."

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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Chris Clayton