WASHINGTON, April 19, 2017- Congressional budget negotiators want to finish work on a fiscal 2017 agreement that would avert a government shutdown next week and provide assistance to cotton producers – making it easier for lawmakers to write the next farm bill. The continuing resolution expires April 28, and congressional leaders hope to pass legislation before then to fund departments and agencies for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has expressed confidence a spending deal will pass in time.

The legislation, known as a “cromnibus,” is expected to be a combination of individual spending bills for some departments and agencies (an omnibus), including the Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration, plus a continuing resolution, or CR, for some other departments.

Details of the legislation won’t be released until next week, but supporters of the cotton industry are increasingly bullish on the chances that the cromnibus will include a provision making cotton seed eligible for the Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program created by the 2014 farm bill. The industry appealed to then-Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to allow cotton producers to participate in PLC, but he declined, saying he lacked the statutory authority.

Addressing the issue through an appropriations bill would get around the legal questions Vilsack cited, while ensuring that cotton producers will have a PLC funding stream, or baseline, when Congress writes the next farm bill. That baseline would mean lawmakers wouldn’t have to take money from other areas of the farm bill in order to authorize and fund PLC payments for cotton seed.

The chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., told Agri-Pulse that he discussed the cotton issue with the chairman of the full Appropriations Committee, Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., and that Frelinghuysen was “very optimistic” that it would be included in the spending legislation. According to sources, supporters of the cotton provision were able to get the cost estimate based on the Congressional Budget Office’s 2016 projections rather than an updated forecast released in January. The January numbers would have significantly increased the cost of the proposal.

The ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, said he was hopeful the bill could include more support for dairy producers by altering the feed-cost formula in the Margin Protection Program (MPP)  and by alterations to the Livestock Gross Margin insurance product. “The argument would be that if you’re going to (provide aid) for cotton, then why don’t you do it for dairy? There are a lot more dairy farmers than cotton,” he said.

Chris Galen, a spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation, said Tuesday that the group is trying to enact unspecified changes to the MPP. “We can’t get into the details as it’s still a work in progress, but we’re working with members of Congress to look for every legislative opportunity to improve” the MPP.

Other issues potentially in play include funding for conservation programs and international food assistance. The House Appropriations Committee proposed cuts to the 2014 farm bill’s mandated spending levels for both the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program. The Senate Appropriations Committee proposed a cut to EQIP. 

Such cuts would reduce the program’s funding baseline heading into the negotiation for the next farm bill and also would force USDA to turn away applications for EQIP and CSP funding, said Paul Wolfe, senior policy specialist with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. The House committee proposed to cut EQIP by $112.8 million and to reduce new CSP enrollments by 2 million acres to 8 million acres. The Senate panel proposed a $190.8 million reduction in EQIP.

As for food aid, President Trump’s proposed budget would cut the Food for Peace program and eliminate the McGovern-Dole international school feeding program. Aderholt suggested there could be cuts, possibly in McGovern-Dole. He said his priority was to protect Food for Peace, which funds the delivery of U.S. commodities to needy regions of the world.

“I don’t want to see it decreased,” Aderholt said. But he said there “clearly… are going to be some cuts somewhere.”