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Conservation Compliance Survives In Senate

The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved an appropriations bill for the U.S. Department of Agriculture that does not have a provision to delay enforcement of the 2014 Farm Bill’s requirement to meet conservation standards in order to buy 2016 crop insurance with subsidized premiums.

The House of Representatives had approved a spending bill for USDA that would have delayed so-called conservation compliance until farmers buy insurance for 2017 crops. Most producers enrolled in USDA commodity programs already meet conservation rules and would not have been affected by Farm Bill requirement.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), one of many conservation groups that lobbied to have conservation compliance apply to crop insurance in the Farm Bill, welcomed the Senate spending bill. The group had a mixed reaction to other conservation-related spending levels, as it pointed out in this statement:

"We are thrilled the Senate bill allows the Conservation Stewardship Program to proceed at the level dictated by the 2014 Farm Bill.  Rejecting the ill-considered cut in the President’s budget and the House bill, the Senate Committee is to be congratulated for respecting the farm bill and recognizing the overwhelming farmer and rancher demand to participate in this performance-based working lands conservation program.  Sadly, the same cannot be said for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, whose funding levels are reduced from the 2014 Farm Bill level by 18% in both the House and Senate bills, despite the increased demand for program funding.’

The annual appropriations process may get caught up in bigger battles between Republican leaders in Congress and the Obama administration, though, so the work of House and Senate on agricultural spending isn’t final.

In more normal times, the full Senate would next vote on the ag spending bill approved in committee this week, then members of appropriations committees from the House and Senate would meet in a conference committee to draft a final bill. That would get another vote in both chambers of Congress and be sent to the President for his signature.

Ferd Hoefner, policy director for NSAC, says normally the conference committee would meet in September. But with deep differences over spending between Obama and Congress, that seems unlikely.

“However, with the appropriations end game still very much in doubt, it will more likely either wind up as a continuing resolution (in which case it's a repeat of last year's bill rather than the new bills coming out of House and Senate committees these past two weeks) or as an omnibus bill [one giant spending bill for the federal government],” Hoefner told in an email message.  “If the latter, it will mean that the White House and the House and Senate GOP leadership have reached some grand bargain deal on budget, appropriations, debt ceiling increase, etc.”

Hoefner said he doesn’t know what the chances are for a grand bargain. 

In spite of that uncertainty, he believes the attempt to delay conservation compliance for crop insurance likely has died. 

“I think our chances on conservation compliance are good,” Hoefner said. “It’s not in Senate bill.  USDA has clarified the situation.  Very very few farmers have an issue with the paperwork, and USDA is leaning over backwards to help those who do.  I’m not sure how, given the facts, the House Agriculture Committee folks who asked for the rider could continue to mount an argument that it is needed.  So I am very hopeful that it will fall by the wayside.”


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