November 14, 2011

Budget Cuts and Baselines: Shedding Light on Endangered Farm Bill Programs

Linnea Laestadius

Linnea Laestadius

Guest Blogger

Center for a Livable Future

While the leaders of the Congressional Agriculture Committees have yet to announce the final details of their proposed Farm Bill cuts to the Super Committee, they have announced a goal of $23 billion in cuts to FB programs. We expect that cuts will touch commodity supports, conservation, and nutrition. The most recent information suggests that the proposal will cut:

  • Conservation programs by $6.5 billion (a 10 percent cut relative to the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) currently projected baseline for the Farm Bill).
  • Commodity supports by $14 to $15 billion (24 percent)
  • Nutrition programs by $4 to $5 billion (1 percent)

At first blush the cuts to conservation and nutrition may seem small, but there’s  more at risk than meets the eye.

A recent Mother Jones article explains why these cuts mean a great deal for small farmers and the environment, but leave industrial agriculture relatively unscathed. (Read up on CLF’s 2012 Farm Bill Priorities here.) Just as important though are the 37 FB programs that were already endangered even before these potential cuts were announced.  Many of these 37 programs are important to furthering public health goals like increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables and protecting ecosystems that provide valuable services to humans. These programs are all risk because they are no longer in the CBO’s Farm Bill baseline.

The baseline is a projection of what the next Farm Bill will cost, assuming that policies from the current Farm Bill continue on through the next Farm Bill. The baseline essentially determines how much money is available to write the Farm Bill, and the CBO uses this as a comparison point for any policy changes proposed by Congress. If a program’s funding expires at the end of the Farm Bill or if funding levels are too low, then it will be excluded from the baseline since, from a budgetary perspective, it is assumed not to continue.

If Congress wants these non-baseline programs to continue in the next Farm Bill, funds will have to be moved over from other currently funded programs due to the 2010 “pay-as-you-go” rule that requires any spending changes to be deficit neutral. To further complicate things, current House rules employ a “cut-as-you-go” principle, which means that any increases in spending can only be offset by decreases in other spending (so raising revenues by closing tax loopholes is off the table).

The exclusion of these programs from the baseline further compounds the public losses from proposed budget cuts. For example, the Agriculture Committees’ potential $6 billion in cuts to conservation programs does not reflect the fact that $2 to $3 billion in funding will already have been lost due to five 2008 Farm Bill conservation programs no longer being in the baseline. Overall, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) estimates that the 37 programs would cost $9 to $10 billion over five years if they were still going to be funded.

As the Super Committee process proceeds, the expected cuts to Farm Bill programs will further shrink the Farm Bill budget, making it even more challenging to find offsets to continue these programs. In short, funding for these 37 programs is highly endangered, and if they are funded it will have to be at the expense of other Farm Bill programs.

Many of the programs at risk represent years’ worth of work by advocates, and important sources of funding for sustainable farmers and low-income communities, both domestically and abroad. At risk conservation programs include the Wetlands Reserve Program, the Grasslands Reserve Program, and the Small Watershed Rehabilitation Program. Other key programs at risk include McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, the Healthy Urban Food Enterprise Development Center, the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program, the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program, and the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative. Prioritizing funding between these programs and the programs still in the baseline represents an extraordinarily challenging task, even without the prospect of tens of billions in Farm Bill cuts.

Of course, it is important to emphasize that these 37 programs are not the only ones at risk.  In the current political climate, all programs face real risk, especially programs without strong advocates.

The CRS offers a full breakdown of the estimated costs of continuing the 37 programs, and the CLF’s Farm Bill Budget Visualizer offers a clear view of the public health-related programs with endangered funding. I would encourage any readers hoping to advocate for a greater focus on public health in the Farm Bill, or simply seeking to better understand the Farm Bill debate, to take the time to explore both of these links.

It is unclear what the Super Committee process actually means for these programs. Many predict that sustainable agriculture, environment, and public health interests will have a diminished voice relative to corporate interests in this behind closed doors process. IATP and Oxfam America have both released blog posts highly critical of the process. Others, such as CLF’s Becca Klein, make a compelling argument for why the Super Committee process may actually yield an outcome that benefits public health given the current budget cutting and anti-environmental sentiments in the House. In a recent blogpost, Klein argues that “Until we have campaign finance reform, or at least a lot more public participation into the Farm Bill process by the many Americans who want programs supporting public health, the voices shouting for smaller government and the numerous agribusiness lobbyists are going to be the loudest.” It is also possible that the 37 programs may simply be set aside by committee leadership to be addressed later in a separate bill.

It should also be noted that whether or not the Committee leadership successfully completes their proposal for the Super Committee, the Super Committee retains discretion to recommend different or even increased budget cuts. If the Super Committee fails, a mandatory $1.2 trillion cut across the economy will be triggered, leading to an estimated $15 billion cut to Farm Bill programs.

With almost everything in the Farm Bill up for possible cuts at this point, advocates may have to make some challenging decisions about where to focus their efforts. What is clear, however, is that regardless of the outcome with the Super Committee, the 37 programs not included in the Farm Bill baseline are at high risk of being cut if nothing is done to protect them. As illustrated in the Visualizer, many of these programs hold clear benefits for public health. Perhaps not all the gains from the 2008 Farm Bill can be preserved, but there is a clear argument for making every effort not to lose programs with valuable impacts for the health of the public, the food system, and the environment.


The CLF’s Farm Bill Budget Visualizer offers an interactive view of Farm Bill spending. The screen capture (below) highlights endangered public health programs, with the lighter shade of green indicating that a program has a “primary” relationship to public health and the darker shade indicating a “secondary” relationship.



  1. Pingback: Visualizer Shows Farm Bill Spending | Center for a Livable Future

  2. These are fine goals, but this article and the Visualizer represent misunderstandings of the biggest impacts of the farm bill, and the related economic and political implications of them, (which is a widespread false paradigm in the food movement and sustainable agriculture movement). In this false paradigm it’s assumed that the farm bill is first of all about spending, and that it’s a fight for getting money to go 1 place and not another. While that’s true in context, the biggest farm bill impacts are not spending, but rather market management, which is rarely mentioned in the food movement. It’s never been true that writing checks has anywhere near as big of an impact as managing markets, such as farm commodity markets. The food movement widely shares a false history of the farm bill, pretending that early farm programs were subsidy programs (commodity subsidies started in 1961 for some crops and much later for others). In fact we had market management, not subsidies. We had price floors and ceilings and supply reductions and reserve supplies. Price floors, etc. were then lowered (1953-1995) and eliminated (1996-), for a multitrilion dollar impact (ie. cheap grains) though that’s usually not known in the food movement. Politically then, a better approach is to call for reduced farm bill spending via bringing back fair trade price floors, etc. This better accomplishes food movement goals, and also farm justice goals in various titles (conservation, credit, trade, research, nutrition). See my blog,, as I don’t know anywhere that this is explained.

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