Congress Postpones Decisions on Federal Spending for 2020

Duane Hovorka, Agriculture Program Director
Conservation Reserve Program land in Iowa

On September 26 Congress sent the president a short-term funding bill that will keep federal agencies running at current budget levels through November 21. That averts a possible shutdown that could have occurred when the fiscal year ran out September 30 without Congress having enacted any of the 12 bills that fund federal agencies.

The House passed most of its funding bills in June, but because there was not yet an overall budget in place, the House included funding increases for many programs. The Senate Appropriations Committee advanced some legislation in September, but none have yet been passed by the full Senate or gone to a conference committee to resolve differences with the House versions.

A two-year budget deal enacted in July provided very little new money for agriculture, so the Senate’s bills propose flat budgets or small increases at best for most USDA and other conservation programs. When House and Senate negotiators meet to work out the final bills, they will have to stick to the limits imposed by the new budget deal. That means a significant increase for any program – like those proposed by the House – would need to be offset by a reduction in another program or agency.

Complicating the picture, major USDA conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program will be subject to a 5.9% automatic cut in 2020. That will reduce funds for these four programs by nearly $189 million next year, and will mean fewer farmers will get the help they seek to install conservation measures.

Final decisions won’t be made for weeks, but based on Congressional action to date, here is the outlook for some of the programs the League has been advocating for.

Farm Bill Conservation Programs now provide about $6 billion annually to help farmers and ranchers be better stewards of the land. Appropriators did not try to take money from these programs to fund other priorities, but as noted most of the major programs will see an automatic 5.9% sequester cut.

Conservation Assistance to farmers should see a slight increase based on the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service funds for staff included in both the House and Senate bills. But the number of USDA employees has been falling because the agency has been slow to replace retiring employees, so even with a budget increase farmers may not get the help they need to craft conservation plans.

Florida Everglades funding for restoration projects should increase. Both House and Senate bills include $200 million for Army Corps of Engineers construction work in South Florida, a big increase from past years that is supported by the League.

Chesapeake Bay Program and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding may see a slight increase, as both House and Senate bills target these EPA programs for modest increases in funding to help reduce polluted runoff.

Missouri River Recovery Program likely won’t see any more money in 2020, as both House and Senate bills would maintain level funding. That comes despite the Corps of Engineers adopting a new fish & wildlife plan that calls for much more spending to mechanically restore instream habitat instead of managing river flows to let nature do the work, as the League had proposed. If this is not corrected in future years, it will put at risk the fish and wildlife benefits promised in the Corps’ plan.  

State & Tribal Wildlife Grants could increase, as both House and Senate bills included increases for this program that helps states and Tribes implement state wildlife plans.

Land & Water Conservation Fund could see a significant increase, as both House and Senate proposed increases in funding for this program that helps purchase and protect public lands for wildlife.

Chronic Wasting Disease could see more attention from federal agencies, as both House and Senate bills appear to increase funding for research or management of this disease that impacts deer and elk.

The League will continue advocating for funding for federal programs that address vital water, wildlife, and soil health needs. Funding for natural resources and the environment now represents less than 1% of the federal budget, and that share has been falling for more than 40 years.

Read our reports about state soil health strategies

and the many benefits of agricultural conservation programs

Cover image: Conservation Reserve Program land in Iowa. Photo courtesy of Lynn Betts, NRCS.

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