By Coleman Garrison
The summer months before Congress’ annual summer recess period in August is historically packed with discussion around passing appropriations bills to fund the federal government. The entirety of the federal government’s budget is split into twelve separate bills that must be passed individually through the legislative process; starting at the subcommittee level, moving through committees, and ultimately being passed by each chamber, reconciled, and put before the president to be signed into law. This year, Congress is behind schedule getting through this process due to the inauguration of a new president and the subsequent delay of the Trump administration’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 budget request.
House Ag Appropriations
Fortunately, the piece of appropriations legislation that funds the majority of USDA and many of its programs that support voluntary conservation has made progress over the last several weeks. During the last week of June, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies released and passed its FY 2018 legislation. Within this bill, NACD focuses on three major areas:
- Funding for the Conservation Operations account, which includes funding for USDA’s Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) program,
- Funding for the Watershed Programs, and
- Mandatory funding for farm bill conservation programs.
In each of these areas, NACD was pleased to see the work of the House subcommittee. The House FY 2018 bill funds the Conservation Operations account at $858.9 million, slightly under the final FY 2017 but slightly over what the House Appropriations Committee passed during this process last year. This level is also significantly above President Trump’s FY 2018 budget request of $766 million. Included in the allocation for the Conservation Operations account was $760.2 million for the Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) program. This bill also funds the Watershed Operations and Small Watershed Rehabilitation programs. Even though the funding levels for these programs were lower than FY 2017, the subcommittee rejected President Trump’s request to provide no new funding.
Perhaps most importantly, the House subcommittee’s FY 2018 legislation does not include any reductions to EQIP or CSP. While both programs are considered mandatory versus discretionary, and therefore do not have to be expressly funded in order for the programs operate, Congress regularly uses a budgetary measure known as Changes in Mandatory Programs (CHIMPs), which allow appropriators to make spending reductions in mandatory programs to increase funding for separate discretionary programs. Considering the major reductions to conservation programs that were made in the 2014 Farm Bill, NACD has long opposed appropriators use of CHIMPs on mandatory conservation programs, which make additional funding cuts to conservation beyond what the 2014 Farm Bill intended.
Senate Ag Appropriations
As pleased as NACD was at the House’s decision to not CHIMP the above mentioned programs, we were equally disappointed that its Senate counterpart chose to continue a CHIMP on the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) when their FY 2018 bill was released late last week. The Senate bill imposes a cap of $1.456 billion on EQIP for FY 2018 – approximately $300 million less in funding than Congress originally authorized. A reduction of this magnitude would severely limit USDA’s ability to help landowners take their first steps into adopting new conservation practices on their land. Outside of the CHIMP to EQIP, the Senate bill also eliminates funding for the Watershed Rehabilitation program, though it does provide $150 million for the Watershed Operations program, the same level of funding the program received in FY 2017.
The Senate subcommittee’s bill also funds Conservation Operations at $874 million, almost $10 million more than Congress provided in FY 2017 and $108 million more than President Trump requested. Within that amount, $768.8 million would be set aside for the CTA program. In response to this funding level, NACD President Brent Van Dyke said “The Senate committee’s call for robust CTA funding shows in no uncertain terms its commitment to promoting the wise use of our nation’s natural resources. This funding allows NRCS and America’s 3,000 conservation districts to continue providing millions of private landowners with on-the-ground technical conservation assistance and local solutions to protect water quality, build soil health, and enhance wildlife habitat nationwide.”
Each chamber’s Committee on Appropriations followed up their respective subcommittees’ actions by moving their legislation forward to be considered by the full House and Senate.
NACD is also watching the House and Senate Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittees to track whether those panels’ appropriations bills adequately fund the EPA’s Section 319 grants program and the U.S. Forest Service. At this time, only the House Appropriations Committee has moved this legislation. Despite the president’s request to eliminate this vital grant program, the House bill would fund 319 grants at $170.9 million, which is about $1 million less than Congress provided in FY 2017. Additionally, the Forest Service’s State and Private Forestry program received $198 million, $18 million less than in FY 2017. This reduction to the State and Private Forestry program would be mostly realized through a cut to the Forest Legacy Program, which in partnership with states and landowners, restores and protects “working forests” that ensure the highest level of water quality.
Because we’ve had several years now of atypical federal appropriations cycles, it’s not clear exactly how the FY 2018 cycle will play out. There are many positive areas in these appropriations bills, however, and NACD will continue to work with Congress to ensure that they fund programs essential to conserving our nation’s natural resources before the close of the current fiscal year on September 30.