When you hear policy wonks talk about things like “congressional appropriations,” “budget reconciliation,” and “mandatory program spending levels,” it can sound a little intimidating.
Now you might be thinking that I’m going to tell you the appropriations process is actually quite simple and not nearly as scary as it sounds. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.
When it comes to conservation and the Farm Bill, the process through which the federal government is funded really is convoluted and terrifying.
Raiding the Conservation Piggy Bank
In 2014, Congress passed a Farm Bill that provided what is called “mandatory funding” for conservation programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). These programs provide farmers with financial and technical assistance to voluntarily implement conservation practices on their land. Cover crops that could reduce nutrient runoff polluting a lake near you? Buffer strips planted along waterways to create and improve wildlife habitat? Farm Bill conservation programs can help with these efforts and much more.
Despite incredibly high demand for conservation programs and “mandatory” funding levels, Congress still manages to cut funding for these programs by hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Last year, Congress cut nearly $600 million just from CSP and EQIP. Farm Bill conservation programs took a total hit of $745.5 million in 2012. In fact, from 2002 to 2012, Congress cut $4.4 billion from Farm Bill conservation programs. Couple that with a $6 billion cut to conservation as the starting point of the 2014 Farm Bill and, well, it’s clear to see that conservation programs are not getting the love (and financing) they deserve – at least, not from Washington.
It’s not all about the money. Because appropriations bills are critical to running the country, politicians use these bills to push policies that wouldn’t always fly on their own (and are usually completely unrelated to the topic of the funding bill). Known as “riders,” these extra policies are often intended to block or delay implementation of a government regulation. And the target of such riders is often a regulation that protects our soil, air, water, woods, and wildlife. So we must keep a close eye on all the funding bills put forward by Congress.
What Does This Year Hold?
What does this year’s budget process look like for conservation programs that protect resources important to League members?
This month, the Senate put together its agriculture spending bill, providing us with the first chance to compare it to the House bill drafted earlier this summer. Both bills reduce mandatory funding for conservation – the funding specified in the 2014 Farm Bill – by hundreds of millions of dollars. Here’s a side by side comparison of the cuts:
|| House Bill
Conservation Stewardship Program
Cuts by 2.26 million acres (approximately $200 million)
| No cuts
|Environmental Quality Incentives Program
|| Cuts by $300 million
||Cuts by $303 million
Regional Conservation Partnership Program
| Cuts by $35 million
||Cuts by $21.2 million
| Policy Riders?
||Contains rider that delays enforcement of new conservation compliance requirements that would protect wetland and highly-erodible land resources
||No conservation compliance rider
Short-Term Savings, Long-Term Problems
When it comes to Farm Bill conservation programs the Senate’s agriculture funding bill is significantly “less bad” than the House’s. But the question remains: why is Congress cutting conservation at all? These are funds that could help protect our nation’s food and water supplies. It’s money that could be used to protect threatened species before they become endangered. And it’s funding that could help producers voluntarily put conservation on their own land – on their own terms. These shortsighted cuts are penny wise and pound foolish, jeopardizing our natural resources and risking billions in future environmental cleanup and regulation, just to spare a few bucks today.
These are the points we need you to relay to your representatives.Congress is on recess for most of August, which means your representatives will be back home to hear from their constituents. This is the perfect time to talk with them about why these programs are important to you. The appropriations process is complicated and confusing, but that doesn’t mean we can sit back and relax when programs protecting the resources we care about are on the chopping block.
Want to know more about how to talk with your representatives about agriculture appropriations? E-mail John Sisser, IWLA Conservation Associate, at firstname.lastname@example.org.