This is a two part blog post. Part One covers the background of the legislative process and Part Two covers the specifics about the scenarios for farm bill programs if the 2018 Farm Bill were to simply expire.
The Conference Committee convenes next week on September 4, 2018. Conferees from both Houses will work to reconcile their versions of the 2018 Farm Bill. But what is motivating them to reach a timely deal?
The 2014 Farm Bill “expires” on September 30, 2018. So what does “expiring” mean, exactly? Could Congress actually let the farm bill expire? What would happen?
Reauthorization, Extension, and Expiration
Congress passes a new farm bill approximately every five years. “Sunset provisions” on certain programs create this cycle. Sunset provisions are expiration dates written into laws at which point the law ceases to be effective after a certain date unless Congress takes further action.
Because our food and agriculture systems rely on a current farm bill to function smoothly, Congress is unlikely to ever allow the farm bill to simply expire. But, the reauthorization process doesn’t always go smoothly. In 2012, the 112th Congress was not able to complete the reauthorization process before the 2008 Farm Bill expired. So, Congress extended the 2008 Farm Bill for one year, and the new Congress later passed the 2014 Farm Bill.
This year, if Congress cannot pass a 2018 Farm Bill in time, it is likely that Congress will once again extend the existing farm bill for a short time. This will buy Congress more time, until after the 2018 elections, to negotiate.
To preserve certainty in the agricultural community, farm groups are advocating for a timely new Farm Bill before the September 30th deadline. In contrast, anti-hunger organizations may prefer no Farm Bill. A Farm Bill extension will allow those groups to lobby a potentially more friendly 116th Congress in 2019, where specifically SNAP work requirement reform would get less traction.
But what if Congress did allow the 2014 Farm Bill to expire, with no reauthorization or extension to keep programs functioning?
What you may have missed in high school civics
There are two major components to every government program. First is authorization, this is the authority to have a program and describes how the program will function, to varying levels of specificity. Authorization for most modern farm bill programs is written directly into the farm bill. The second component is funding. No government program exists if there is not money to pay for staff, contractors, or benefits. A program must have funding. However, even without authorization, a program can keep functioning. This scenario could give agencies much more room to use the funding as they find appropriate, provided the agency’s actions do not conflict with the limitations in the appropriations language. For more information on this, check out this CRS Report.
Funding for government programs comes in two flavors: mandatory funding and discretionary funding. Mandatory funding is included with the authorization, so in this case is written into the farm bill. Discretionary funding is determined yearly through appropriations, which is a separate bill or series of separate bills referred to as the “budget.”
If Congress fails to pass a budget, the government will shut down. Because the budget is/are separate bill(s), it is not covered in this post. This post will only focus on if there is no farm bill, not no budget. However, readers should note that at the time of this writing, the USDA/FDA/HUD appropriations bill (H.R. 6147) has not been signed into law and the FY 2018 funding will also expire September 30th, 2018.
Looking Ahead to October
If there is no farm bill on October 1, 2018, the effects would be drastic. Although a few programs would survive, many of the farm bill programs we rely on would cease to operate, and others would revert to anachronistic structures that make no sense in today’s world. Given the stakes, lawmakers are highly motivated to make something happen before the 2014 Farm Bill expires. If Congress is able to compromise soon, it can stay on schedule to replace the expiring law with a reauthorized 2018 Farm Bill. If not, it will likely extend the current farm bill for long enough to renegotiate a new version. But it cannot do nothing.
Mandatory Funding: funding for a program that is written directly into the authorizing language of the statute (in this case, the Farm Bill)
Discretionary Funding: funding that is allocated to a program through the yearly appropriations process and is subject to change each year
No Funding: No funding does not mean that the treasury is dry, but instead that the agency loses the authority to go into debt and make obligate money to other parties
Appropriations: the annual process through which government programs are funding. This is also called the budget and when the government fails to complete the appropriations process there is a government “shut-down”
Sunset Provision: an end date to a bill, at which point that piece of legislation is no longer valid law
Permanent Law: a piece of legislation that does not include a sunset provision and is valid law unless altered or repealed by a subsequent piece of legislation