Senate Democrats are attempting to pass an Omnibus Appropriations bill for fiscal year 2011 instead of the House-passed Continuing Resolution. However, with respect to the food safety bill, there is a leadership agreement that the same language that has now passed the House will be attached to the Omnibus and, should the Omnibus fail, will be attached to a final House-Senate negotiated Continuing Resolution.
The House-passed full year Continuing Resolution caps government discretionary spending at the FY 2010 levels though it makes numerous adjustments within that flat-line spending. Some of the big decreases include cuts for the Census (needed in 2010 but not in 2011), high speed rail, unspent highway funding, and funding to close defense bases. Some of the larger increases include Pell grants, Pentagon spending, Veteran’s medical operations, nuclear weapons spending that is part of the deal to try to pass the START treaty, and President Obama’s “Race to the Top” education grants.
Within the agriculture portion of the bill, there is a $6.5 million increase for USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) and a large increase in formula funds for land grant universities that is roughly offset by a decrease in congressional earmarked research and extension projects, leaving the earmarking decisions up to USDA and the universities. There is an important increase of $31.9 million needed to simply maintain Farm Service Agency direct and guaranteed loans at roughly the same program levels as 2010. There are also increases for child nutrition and commodity assistance feeding programs and for the Food and Drug Administration. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is cut by $270 million from its 2008 Farm Bill level, but no other farm bill conservation cuts are included.
Sadly, the large increase for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program that was contained in the President’s budget and in the House Committee bill and partially contained in the Senate Committee bill is not part of the Continuing Resolution. Hence SARE funding would be static under the House measure.
Relative to the House-passed Continuing Resolution, the yet to be made public Senate Omnibus Bill contains more up to date spending decisions for many key areas of the government. Whereas the House bill represents a cut of $46 billion from the budget amounts requested by the Obama Administration, the draft Senate bill would restore about $18 billion of those cuts. The largest share of those restorations would be in Defense, State, and Homeland Security. The Senate bill also includes congressional earmarks that have been largely stripped from the House bill.
However, in the agriculture portion, rumor has it that the total spending level would be $1 billion lower than FY 2010 levels and the House bill. While the details have not been released, it is well known that the Senate omnibus would include major reductions to farm bill mandatory funding for conservation and energy programs. Appropriators sometimes raid mandatory accounts, which they theoretically do not control, in order to make up for shortfalls in discretionary spending that they do control.
The politics of passing the Omnibus in the Senate hinges on a handful of Republican Senators, mostly appropriators, who may decide that higher funding levels for defense and homeland security plus their own earmarks may make it worthwhile to join hands with Democrats and pass a real appropriations bill rather than a long-term Continuing Resolution. In addition to the choice between the long-term Continuing Resolution and the Omnibus, a third choice, favored by many Republicans, is yet another short term Continuing Resolution that would expire in March and allow the new Republican-controlled House to rewrite all the appropriations bills for the last half of fiscal year 2011.
All of this drama will play out over the course of the next week. While the outcome on appropriations among the three leading options remains in doubt, whatever option is ultimately chosen the final appropriations vehicle should carry with it the food safety bill as passed by the House yesterday.