As a conservative Republican, I strongly support scooping up unused funds sitting in the drawers of federal agencies and returning them to the taxpayers or reducing the federal debt. But the rescission package the Administration recently proposed would make significant cuts in funding that Congress has authorized for important agricultural conservation programs administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). These monies are not spare change but precious dollars the agency intends to use to address a backlog of pending conservation requests. The funds need to be preserved and reserved for conservation— not returned to the federal treasury. 

In the flurry surrounding the unexpected failure last week of the House farm bill and the ongoing agricultural appropriations discussions, it’s important not to let these rescissions go unchallenged. And, in fact, earlier this week, 29 farm and conservation organizations sent a joint letter to Congress requesting reconsideration of proposed rescissions in conservation funds. The signatories affirmed the value of agricultural conservation and the need to keep these funds—some $670 million—available for essential conservation programs.

We know that for every EQIP (Environmental Quality Improvement Program) contract that’s funded, three others are added to the backlog—beneficial conservation work that there are not enough dollars to do. How is it that money remains unspent?

When I was Chief of NRCS, money allocated for a particular program for a specific year could only be spent on contracts for that program designated for that year. So NRCS would set aside say $25,000 to cover an EQIP contract in 2005, but perhaps over the course of the three-year contract, the farmer only drew $20,000 of the funds, leaving $5,000 behind. That leftover money could only be spent on contracts authorized in 2005, even though time had passed and many other worthy projects were lined up waiting for funding.

Congress wisely changed that approach several years ago to ensure that conservation funds would not be tied to specific years but rather could be spent for the purposes Congress intended in later years as well. This policy, known as “no-year” funding, makes a lot more sense.

NRCS has made it clear the agency intends to spend the funds proposed for rescission, but needs to explain why it has yet to do so. It’s essential not to let conservation funds accumulate to the point that they become a tempting target for rescissions, but rather promptly reallocate them to produce the promised conservation investment in working lands conservation.

As this rescission package moves through the legislative process, I want to see two things. First, I want Congress to resist the temptation to cut unspent conservation funds even though this may look like easy pickings to shave a tiny sliver off the deficit. Second, I’d like to see Congress exert some pressure on NRCS to reallocate these monies and get the conservation that’s been authorized installed on the ground. We need to ask the hard questions about why these funds have accumulated and how the agency plans to redistribute them and put them to good use.

I know we are all looking forward to a new farm bill, but we can’t let this rescission package go unchallenged. Or we will fail to reap the full benefits of previous farm bills.

About the Author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service.