Congressional Republicans who opposed the Inflation Reduction Act, the main funding mechanism for President Joe Biden's climate policy, would like to move the IRA's funding for climate-related farming practices into the farm bill, which could permanently boost funding for conservation programs.
Republicans also hope to provide more flexibility in how the IRA conservation funding can be used. Under the IRA, the funding is specifically targeted toward practices that could improve soil carbon, reduce nitrogen losses or reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“A lot of stuff that we do in the conservation title in the farm bill would accomplish those same objectives and it would stretch our farm bill dollars further,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.
But moving that funding would require support from Senate Ag Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, an IRA champion hesitant to budge on the bill’s climate provisions. Moreover, due to the Congressional Budget Office's budgeting rules, shifting the money from the IRA into the farm bill could result in a loss of some of the IRA funding.
Stabenow sits in a prime negotiating position with the Senate Ag Committee's top Republican, John Boozman of Arkansas, and House Ag Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa.: The IRA is already law. The conservation program funding exists outside of the farm bill, which means it does not have to be revisited by the House and Senate Ag committees in the next farm bill.
But the chance to permanently increase the baseline for conservation programs may yet have some appeal to Stabenow, according to Ferd Hoefner, a policy consultant who was the longtime policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
“By moving it to the farm bill baseline, it becomes permanent money rather than money that disappears in 2031,” Hoefner said.
Under congressional budget reconciliation rules used to enact the IRA, the funding in that law has no effect on program levels after 2031. However, lawmakers believe CBO could allow them to permanently boost conservation program funding levels by moving the IRA accounts into the farm bill.
Adding the dollars to the farm bill may be a tough sell for Stabenow, especially if Republicans are keen on applying them to conservation practices more broadly. She has defended the language in the IRA tying funding to carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas reduction practices. She previously pushed back on Republicans’ demands for the funding to be applied across a more comprehensive set of conservation practices, telling Agri-Pulse that she feels the options presented by both the IRA and the existing rules for farm bill conservation programs “provide the flexibility to cover farms all over the country.”
“There’s basically enough flexibility there to meet all our growers’ needs,” Stabenow said.
In an interview with Agri-Pulse, Boozman said Stabenow has emphasized that she wants to see the IRA dollars used “as intended” if they were to be added to the farm bill.
“I think that’s a red line for her is making sure that those dollars are as they intended,” Boozman said. “I respect that. I don’t have the ability to change that.”
Another major challenge facing the committees is the CBO, which will determine how much of the IRA funding can be shifted into the farm bill, according to congressional aides. The IRA authorized $17 billion in funding for four programs, but CBO estimates USDA can only spend $15.3 billion by the time the IRA budget authority expires. USDA may get the money out the door faster than CBO thinks, but it doesn't matter for farm bill purposes. CBO may only allow lawmakers to move the $15.3 billion in estimated outlays to the farm bill, the aides say.
One of the major hang-ups is the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. CBO projects USDA will use only $3.8 billion of the $4.6 billion that was authorized in the IRA. Unless CBO revises its estimates, lawmakers will likely only be able to move the $3.8 billion into the farm bill.
RCPP was first authorized in the 2014 farm bill as a way to allow private sector organizations and state governments to co-invest and collaborate on conservation projects in certain regions, like the Colorado River Basin or the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
Conservation and farm groups, however, have called the program “administratively burdensome” and “laden with red tape.” Sara Porterfield, the western water policy adviser for Trout Unlimited, told lawmakers at a recent conservation hearing that it takes two years on average for an RCPP agreement to be fully executed after the award selection is made.
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“It’s not an efficient process,” said Ben Thomas, the senior policy director for climate-smart agriculture at the Environmental Defense Fund. “It can take years to go from putting a project together to getting it approved to getting funding to getting that funding out.”
Farmers have experienced this slowdown as well. Paul Bruchez, a Colorado rancher, told lawmakers it has taken him three years to get an EQIP-RCPP Colorado River water diversion project completed due to NRCS capacity struggles delaying the design process.
Thomas and Porterfield both suggested changing the contracting vehicle from a partnership agreement to a grant agreement, which would allow non-USDA partners to contract directly with producers.
Hoefner, however, pushed back, saying he does not believe the program should move toward grants. He also had some reservations about dramatically increasing the program’s funding, saying he didn’t like the idea of private entities receiving “$100 million grants” for conservation projects.
“All of those ideas, I think, are terrible ideas,” he said.
Robert Bonnie, the USDA’s undersecretary for farm production and conservation, said he believes one of the main causes of the slow RCPP process comes from the agency being too unwilling to take “any risk at all” when implementing the program. Bonnie hopes to give state conservationists more control over the process and how the program operates.
“The agency has to be willing to take on a little more risk, but we can design processes that I think will have a high level of accountability,” Bonnie said.
Bonnie said CBO’s reservations on the IRA dollars for the RCPP program stem from the agency not being able to get them “out of the door” as quickly as needed. He said the agency would be working to improve the program to show them that they could.
“The best thing we can do there is demonstrate that we can get the resources out,” Bonnie said.
Boozman, asked by Agri-Pulse whether lawmakers could leave the RCPP funding outside of the farm bill, said lawmakers could “probably do anything [they] wanted to.”
It’s not only RCPP that may lose some dollars if the funding is moved. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program was authorized at $7.9 billion for 10 years, but outlays are only projected at $7.3 billion. The Conservation Stewardship Program was authorized at 3 billion, but its outlays are only projected at $2.8 billion.
Hoefner said it may be possible for lawmakers to “repurpose” some of the authorized money not included in the outlays for other uses. He said he believes that is “totally within the power of Congress to decide.”
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