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House passes continuing resolution that will limit conservation signups

The House of Representatives today passed a continuing resolution to fund the government for six months.

The Senate is expected to take up the CR by next Thursday. The White House was part of the negotiations for the CR, and President Barack Obama is expected to sign it.

The passage of the continuing resolution means that all the appropriations bills including the one for Agriculture and related agencies will be discarded, including riders to which some groups had objected. Most Agriculture Department programs including food stamps will be continued at the same levels through March 27, 2013.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition wrote members of Congress this week that the CR will prevent any new enrollments in the Conservation Stewardship Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, Grassland Reserve Program, and Chesapeake Bay Conservation Program in fiscal year 2013, although in response to congressional complaints the group later acknowledged that the Natural Resources Conservation Service could run “a very tiny CSP sign-up in 2013 (about 1 million acres, instead of the full 12.8 million acres) if USDA's current estimates of what it will take to pay existing contracts proves to be fairly accurate.”

But NSAC lobbyist Ferd Hoefner said in an email, “In all probability, given the more than 2:1 application to available acres response that CSP has been drawing each year at the full 12.8 million acre level, NRCS would not run a tiny sign-up and leave 95 percent of applicants frustrated and upset.”

“Officially, though, they have not made a decision and are leaving all options open,” Hoeffner said. “So some on the Hill say our letter on this particular point is not completely accurate. We honestly don't think the agency would run a sign-up for a paltry number of acres, but in any event, the griping from the Hill misses the point.”

“The larger point remains the same,” he added. “The CR is a huge setback to conservation and also a set back to farm bill baseline and thus the chances for actually getting a farm bill done. And they are doing it despite the fact there was an easy fix that was no net cost and would have allowed all four programs (CSP, WRP, GRP, CBCP) to move forward without upsetting the farm bill baseline at all.

“That proposal was put forward last week, but sadly not adopted because of the obsession with having a ‘clean’ CR, no matter the substantive consequences. We are getting a more sympathetic ear on both sides of the aisle in the Senate, but the push to adopt the House version with no changes and get out of town will frankly make it impossible to fix now.

“Could it be fixed in a farm bill or a disaster bill? Yes, it could. But unlike in the CR where the whole thing could be done at no net cost, in authorizing bills the cut in the CR would then have to be offset, thus raising the cost of the farm bill or the disaster bill by the amount of the CHIMPS [changes to mandatory programs] in the CR,” Hoeffner said.

“Could be done. Easy to do? No. Will we be pushing to get it done. You bet.”