For legislative advocates and Washington policy wonks engaged in the debates on long term reauthorizing legislation like the Highway Bill, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Farm Bill you have to be wondering about the future of long-term legislative reauthorizations given the current environment in Congress.
In June of last year U.S. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas told National Journal, “My friends on the hard left don’t want to spend any money on rural America. And my friends on the hard right don’t want to spend any money for anybody on any occasion or any reason. The question is, how do you craft the majority of the middle, who understand that making investments in rural America and production agriculture will continue to ensure us the most abundant, safest, most affordable food supply in the history of the world?
That Question Still Lingers
The Democrat-controlled Senate and White House are continuing to work to balance the changes desired by more conservative members of Congress. But, it is becoming more clear, at least to some conservatives in Congress that a good legislative strategy to continue getting their way in altering policies and reducing program spending, is through continual annual/biennial extensions of legislation.
Reauthorization is one-half of the federal budget process. Simply put, it sets the maximum amount a federal program may be funded. But, it is the annual Appropriations process that provides the actual amount of money allocated to the program.
Moreover, funding to write reauthorization legislation is based on Congressional Budget Office (CBO) annual baseline projections of the cost of the programs, using multiple budget assumptions about how programs will continue in the future, typically for ten years. CBO’s baseline projections are based on current economic conditions at a particular point in time and what federal spending on mandatory programs would likely be if programs continue under current law. When new legislation is proposed that impacts mandatory spending, that impact is considered as an increase or decrease in program spending from the established baseline.
More and more federal lawmakers are using a captive legislative process to gain policy concessions. They are also continuing to use delaying tactics to gain favorable budget scores.
Another FAA, or Highway Bill?
Last year’s FAA reauthorization, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, was signed into law on February 14, 2012. But the reauthorization for FAA programs came after 5 years of debate and 23 extensions. Republicans only supported the bill after language was included making it more difficult for airline and railroad workers to form unions.
In late June last year, after 3-years of debate and 9 extensions, Congress adopted a two-year, $105 billion Highway Bill that funds inland construction and transit projects. It also enhances federal loan programs that are used to finance major projects. Prior to passage the bill was held captive by disputes over environmental regulations, approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline in the bill and including $6 billion in the bill to prevent increasing loan rates on student loans.
Right Up To the Congressional-established Deadline
Each congressional-generated legislative crisis ends at, or near the congressional-established deadline. The most current congressional-generated crisis is enacting the FY 2013 spending for the federal government, known as a continuing resolution (CR), before the congressional-established deadline of March 27. Typically the 13 individual appropriations bills funding the federal government should be completed before the beginning of each federal fiscal year on October 1.
Last week the U.S. House adopted 267-151, H.R. 933 that provides a total $984 billion for all federal agencies and includes the across-the-board cuts required by the March 1 sequestration order. The CR provides $517.6 billion in base funding for the Defense Department and $146.4 billion for veterans programs and military construction. Remaining federal agencies would be funded at FY 2012 enacted levels.
On Monday, March 18 the Senate voted 63-35 to allow the CR to proceed to a final vote. In the previous week Senators offered about 100 amendments to the CR. But, in order to get the CR quickly signed into law the Senate struck an agreement to adopt the measure with limited amendments. The Senate version of the CR adds more specific budget line items for the Department of Agriculture, and includes additional authority to allow more shifting of funds among Agency accounts. The House version only offers the additional shifting of funds to the Department of Defense.
On March 20, the U.S. Senate approved the CR funding the government for the remaining six months of the FY 2013 fiscal year (April through September) by a vote of 73 to 26. The measure now goes back to the U.S. House where leaders have indicated they will agree to the Senate-adopted version and vote to approve it by the end of the week in order to avoid a federal government shutdown by the congressional-generated March 27 deadline.
And the Next Crisis is…
Recall Congress suspended the U.S. debt ceiling until May 18. This generated the next crisis – a vote to increase the U.S. debt ceiling currently at $16.4 trillion and prevent the slashing of the U.S. credit rating that would subsequently wreak havoc over international financial markets.
This issue will be the poster-child for the now captive legislative process in Washington as some members withhold their support until legislative concessions on multiple issues are achieved.
Next Long-term Reauthorization Impacted: Farm Bill
Debate on a Farm Bill in, or around the debt ceiling debate in Congress does not bode well for a 5-year reauthorization of a farm bill. If the conservatives in Congress stick to their playbook as on previous issues this could prove to be the undoing of traditional 5-year farm bills. If the same playbook used for the FAA and Highway bills are applied to the current farm bill debate, how much must be extracted from entitlement programs like SNAP to allow the farm bill to proceed and/or garner conservative republican support for increasing the U.S. debt ceiling?
Moreover, Ranking Member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee Collin Peterson (D-MN) released in a March 12 statement saying, “If the House Republicans do take the Ryan budget numbers seriously, I don’t see how they can be serious about passing long-term farm policy this year. If these are the budget priorities for the House Majority, agriculture might best be served by again extending the current farm bill.”
In an earlier article we highlighted the legislative time constraints Congress is under. After the debt ceiling increase crisis the U.S. House schedule has 75 legislative days remaining until the end of the calendar year (and 1st session). In these remaining 75 legislative days the farm bill is one among several big issues remaining that include comprehensive immigration reform, comprehensive tax overhaul, cyber-security, entitlement reform, trans-pacific trade partnership, postal service reform, Dodd-Frank reform, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac reform.
Congress in its current dysfunctional state cannot get to all these critical issues prior to the start of the 2nd session in January that will be complicated by politics and the 2014 mid-term elections. In addition changes have occurred in the leadership of the Senate Agriculture Committee that will likely cause some policy shifts from 2012 legislation. Agriculture also exhibited its lost political clout last year when Congress did not complete a farm bill albeit amidst multiple, complicated factors including but not limited to; one of the worst droughts in U.S. history, record high exports, high commodity prices and multiple billions of dollars offered in budget savings. So the likely scenario for the future of a farm bill is at best a 2-year extension.
Who Will This Impact?
Nearly everyone. From the nutritional value of school children’s lunches to the bottom line of food company distributors, delays and changes in the farm bill will impact most of America in some fashion. From beginning to end: the economically distressed families to the tax payers funding the programs. The agriculture industry is looking at cuts to several agriculture programs. The food industry can anticipate changes in safety and regulatory issues. Farmers can foresee changes in loan programs and emergency and disaster assistance. Related industries, in general may face increased fees and penalties since the revenue from program cuts must be acquired somewhere else (Be sure to see our upcoming article on the future of User Fees).
Government Relationship Representation
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