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Shutdown or Not, Farm Bill Extension Expires on Oct. 1

One thing’s certain on Oct. 1: Congress will have allowed the nine-month extension of the 2008 farm bill to expire.

Added to that, in a sort of one-two punch, the Agriculture Department could be faced with shutting down operations that same day, should Congress fail to reach agreement on a stopgap spending bill. USDA officials were tight-lipped Tuesday about any contingency plans, although one key Democratic senator voiced concerns about the impact on the agency.

“No doubt it is going to hurt a lot of their efforts to continue to have a vibrant agriculture economy here in this country. I hope we don’t get there, but it looks as though we are headed in that direction,” said Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

There’s no farm bill because Congress has not yet been able to agree on a new measure, with the next expected step a procedural move to merge the Senate farm bill (S 954), the House agriculture-only farm bill (HR 2642) and the House nutrition bill (HR 3102). That action must be taken before Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, can appoint conferees to a farm bill conference committee; it’s expected that the merger measure could be folded into another rule later this week.

And there’s no sign yet of whether a government shutdown will be the outcome of the battle over a House-passed stopgap funding measure (H J Res 59) that would withhold money from the 2010 health care law.

But shutdown or not, the farm bill will expire Oct. 1, and the impact will be staggered. The most significant effect of the extension’s expiration won’t happen until Jan. 1, when the Agriculture Department would be required to start taking steps under permanent law to force up milk prices, the “dairy cliff.”

If Congress does not extend 2008 law or address the issue in some way before the first of the year, the cost of dairy price supports at that point would double, raising the possibility that milk prices eventually could increase to $8 a gallon.

Still, a number of USDA programs would lose funding Oct. 1, the start of the federal fiscal year.

Two major programs for promoting U.S. farm products overseas, the Foreign Market Development Program and the Market Access Program, will be among the first affected. According to the USDA, groups that get Foreign Market Development funding to operate overseas promotional efforts may have to close offices and lay off staff. A large portion of the Foreign Market Development money goes to rent and salaries, according to a USDA email. In addition, Agriculture Department staff will have to delay doing any work on the Market Access Program’s fiscal 2014 grants until the program’s authority is renewed.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, in a blog post outlining the impact of the extension expiration, notes that there can be no new enrollments starting next month in the Conservation Reserve Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program. The Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program also will be closed down until a new farm bill or extension is passed.

“There are real and immediate impacts that result from Congress’ decision to neglect its duty and allow the existing farm bill extension to expire on October 1,” the coalition said.

It’s also important to remember that the expiring farm bill extension didn’t provide any additional mandatory funding for 37 programs that were left without a funding baseline when the 2008 law expired a year ago, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Many, but not all, of those are relatively small conservation, nutrition, rural development, research and energy programs without sizable constituencies. Some of the programs would receive renewed funding under one or both of the farm bills that have passed the House and Senate. The popular Value-Added Agricultural Market Development grants, for example, would be funded under both bills.

As for a shutdown’s effect on the USDA, Pryor said he had not spoken with department officials about their plans for determining who is an essential employee and which of the agency’s wide-ranging responsibilities would merit continuation in a potential shutdown.

Pryor said he is worried that his state’s county extension service could be affected if Congress does not approve a continuing resolution.

“They have agents in every county, and that might be jeopardized or at least part of that funding might be jeopardized,” Pryor said.

He noted that the Agriculture Department has trimmed its budget and its workforce since fiscal 2012 to meet sequester and congressional savings targets.

“The Department of Agriculture has taken several hits over the last three years. It’s not good,” Pryor added.

However, Nebraska Republican Sen. Mike Johanns, who was Agriculture secretary under President George W. Bush, said he was not worried yet about the department. Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, an appropriator and ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, also said he had no immediate concerns. Cochran said he trusted agriculture officials would take steps to “cause the least amount of pain and confusion.”

A USDA spokeswoman referred CQ Roll Call to the Office of Management and Budget, which in turn referred a reporter to the administration’s Sept. 17 government-wide general guidance for departments and agencies.

An officer with the Southern Council of Food Inspection Locals, which represents Food Safety and Inspection Service meat inspectors, said via email that his members have not received information about how they would be affected. The inspectors are expected to be classified as essential personnel.

In March, Pryor and Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, ranking Republican on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, scrambled to win support for a compromise amendment to the fiscal 2013 continuing resolution (PL 113-6) to keep meat and poultry inspectors on the job. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned that without additional money he would be forced to furlough the inspectors, which in turn would slow down operations at the nation’s slaughterhouses. Their amendment shifted $55 million from other accounts at the Agriculture Department to keep the inspectors working.

Vilsack told lawmakers the additional funding was necessary because under the sequester he could not order people to work if he did not have money for their salaries. Under a government shutdown scenario, Vilsack said he had the authority to designate essential employees and keep them working without pay.

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