Dozens of Agriculture Programs Fall Outside Farm Bill Baseline

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By Casey Wooten

Fighting to increase agriculture funding can be a tough slog for stakeholders during the farm bill cycle, but when a program falls outside of the bill’s budget baseline, the battle has to be started all over again.

More than three dozen USDA programs fall outside of the farm bill’s budget baseline set by the 2014 version of the legislation, putting them at a funding disadvantage as lawmakers work on the next farm bill throughout this year and the next.

“It means you have to start from zero to get funding, rather than having some funding and being able to build upon it or protect it,” Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, told Bloomberg BNA.

The five-year farm bill is the main agricultural policy vehicle for Congress and sets spending for both major programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and minor programs like promoting farmer’s markets. The 2014 farm bill authorized $489 billion in mandatory spending over five years, though only a small portion, about $2.6 billion, went to programs that don’t have a budget baseline beyond 2018.

Thirty-Seven Programs

The Congressional Budget Office hasn’t published a list of farm bill programs that fall outside the baseline, but a February Congressional Research Service report compiled a list using the budget score of the 2014 farm bill as well as the legislative text. A full list of the programs is included in the CRS report.

The programs falling outside the budget baseline come from a broad range of policy issues and include conservation, rural development and agricultural research initiatives.

The 2014 farm bill allocated $250 million for small watershed rehabilitation and $200 million for assistance in constructing biorefineries. Lawmakers spent another $200 million on pilot programs to reduce nutrition assistance dependence and $150 million on rural water and waste development programs.

Each program is a small fraction of the farm bill, but there is a constituency for every one of the 37 groups and they are likely to fight to preserve funding levels, Thatcher said.

“They’ll be working diligently to get their place back, and I suspect that in then end most of them will indeed get it back,” Thatcher said.

Indeed, a 2012 CRS report counted 37 programs outside the baseline, though not all were the same as now.

Though the overall spending may be small, compared to major farm bill programs such as crop insurance, for some issues nearly all of the relevant programs fall into this non-baseline group, Ferd Hoefner, senior strategic adviser for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said during an April 11 panel discussion at the Consumer Federation of America’s National Food Policy Conference.

“100 percent of the programs in the farm bill for beginning farmers, for minority farmers, for healthy food access, for organic agriculture and for local, regional food are among those three dozen programs,” Hoefner said.

Hoefner said the $100 million program for beginning farmers and ranchers was of particular concern as the demographics of U.S. agriculture shifts to an older population.

“We have a really big problem in this country, it’s not just the aging of the agricultural workforce, but it’s also the extreme consolidation of farmland ownership among people who are beyond retirement age,”

Budget Concerns

A Congressional Budget Office baseline is a projection of future federal spending on mandatory programs. The baseline serves as a measuring point against new spending for the next farm bill.

Programs included in the baseline have future funding baked into the next spending bill, while funding initiatives outside the baseline would increase the bill’s CBO cost score, making them a harder sell among budget-hawk lawmakers who may call for offsets.

There are a few reasons that explain why a program many fall outside of the budget baseline, but it all comes down to that CBO score, Thatcher said.

“So this often happens that you run out of money, so you fund it for four years and then the fifth year you cut it off so that you don’t get a score,” she said. “It’s not unusual that this happens, but I do think that it makes life more difficult for those [programs].”

The CBO assumes that most programs which project mandatory spending in the final year of its authorization will continue in the baseline. Major farm bill programs such as farm subsidies, crop insurance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—which together make up about 85 percent of farm bill spending—fall into this category.

However, farm bill programs with mandatory spending of less than $50 million in spending in the final year of the farm bill and some programs started after 1997 may not be included in the budget baseline, according to the CRS report.

To contact the reporter on this story: Casey Wooten in Washington at cwooten@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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