June 7, 2005:
The House’s Agricultural Appropriations
Committee has sent its budget recommendation to the
house floor and conservation groups are not happy. The
proposed budget will entail cutting $464 million or
21% from conservation assistance promised to farmers.
After expressing their disappointment with the budget,
several organizations have taken their case to the Senate.
In a letter to the Senate Agricultural Appropriations
Subcommittee 25 sustainable agriculture, scientific,
conservation and environmental organizations urged the
Senators to maintain the mandatory funding levels agreed
to in the 2002 Farm Bill for the major voluntary conservation
incentive programs. Senate action on the agricultural
appropriations bill is expected to begin the week of
June 13. The House was expected to vote on their budget
Wednesday June 8.
If passed, the bill pending before the House would
slash $188 million (16%) from the Environmental Quality
Incentives Program, $153 million (38%) from the Wetlands
Reserve Program, $73 million (22%) from the Conservation
Security Program, $25 million (29%) from the Wildlife
Habitat Incentives Program, $16.5 million (17%) from
the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program, $14 million
(70%) from the Agricultural Management Assistance program,
and $9 million (15%) from the Ground and Surface Water
Conservation Program. The House bill went even further
than the proposed $392 million (18%) cut to the same
Farm Bill conservation programs contained in President
Bush’s budget proposal released in February.
The 2002 Farm Bill included mandatory funding for each
of these programs, meaning these programs do not require
annual appropriations; if appropriators do nothing,
they are funded at their farm bill levels. Appropriators
can, however, prohibit spending on “salaries and
expenses” to implement farm bill programs above
some specified level, in essence re-opening the farm
bill through the backdoor and changing its basic terms.
The savings thus obtained are then used to offset other
spending initiatives in the appropriations bill. Theoretically,
similar backdoor savings could be made through limitations
to the commodity or nutrition titles of the farm bill,
but in practice congressional appropriators have targeted
only conservation, rural development, and agricultural
research for limitations on mandatory spending.
The letter notes the proposed cuts come at a time when
three out of every four farmers seeking conservation
assistance are being turned down due to lack of funds
and the backlog of approved conservation plans already
exceeds available farm bill dollars by a three-to-one
margin. The groups signing the letter conclude the needs
of the producers across the country are not being met
and the environmental promise of the conservation title
is being compromised.
The organizations specifically urge the Senator appropriators
to forgo any backdoor appropriations limitation on the
Farm Bill’s Conservation Security Program, noting
that such caps are antithetical to the fundamental character
of the “green payments” program. The groups
also urge the Senate to improve Wetlands Reserve Program
funding to at least the 200,000 acre level proposed
by the President as part of his Wetlands Initiative.
The largest federal program to restore wetlands, the
WRP is authorized in the Farm Bill for an up to 250,000
acre enrollment each year.