On March 16, the White House unveiled it’s ‘skinny budget,’ which clocks in at a slim 53 pages. The budget is short on details, but overall, proposes to cut non-defense discretionary spending by $15 billion in fiscal 2017 and $54 billion in 2018.  Defense spending would see a boost of $25 billion in 2017 and $54 billion in 2018. The budget cuts every agency, except for defense and veterans affairs, anywhere from 5 to over 30 percent.  At the USDA, the White House budget proposes to cut funding to the agency by 21 percent.  While the proposal is scant on details – the proposal would result in a 50 percent cut to discretionary programs at USDA, ranging from conservation to research and rural development grants and programs.

In the President’s 2018 budget proposal, mandatory funding (ie, crop insurance, food stamps) are not cut.  A few discretionary programs that remain intact include the Food Saftey Inspection Service (FSIS), the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI).  Additionally, the Forest Service’s wildfire budget would be fully funded, at $2.4 billion.

Other discretionary funding, which covers everything ranging from research to conservation, forestry, and rural development is cut by $4.7 billion. The proposed budget at USDA includes the following cuts:

  • Reduction in funding to the National Forest System.  It’s unclear what would be cut here, but in 2016, the National Forest System received $1.5 billion.
  • Provides $350 million for “USDA’s flagship competitive research program” which is vague, but USDA hosts several research divisions, including the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), USDA’s in-house research agency, which includes 90 research locations and 2,000 scientists.  In 2016, ARS received $1.4 billion in funding. 
  • “Reduce funding for USDA’s statistical capabilities, which is assumed to be the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).  In 2016, ERS received $85 million in funding, NASS received $168 million.  However, the President’s budget states it will maintain “core Departmental analytical functions,” which includes the Census of Agriculture, carried out by NASS.  Therefore, it is unclear how much either program would be cut.
  • Eliminate “discretionary activities of the Rural Business and Cooperative Service” which among other things, provides capital to rural businesses.  Despite the President’s insistence that the private sector can fill the role formerly played by the government, public-private partnerships typically don’t benefit rural areas. 
  • “Encourage private sector conservation planning” which would likely mean transferring much or all of the role of the Natural Resources Conservation (NRCS) to private entities.

These aren’t the only cuts proposed – indeed, cuts would be deep across USDA.  Cutting funding to R&D programs is particularly dangerous at a time when policy experts and scientists say we desperately need more, not less, food and agriculture research, given the complexities and uncertainties in the agricultural system today.

The bottom line -- it’s unclear where and how deep these proposed cuts will be.  More will be revealed in the full budget, expected to be released by the White House in the next few months.

A few GOP lawmakers reminded the President that Congress, not the White House, controls the purse strings. Rep. Conaway (R-TX), chairman of House Agriculture, released a statement following the budget release, which stated, "On the USDA budget, I am concerned that the cuts, while relatively small in the context of the total federal budget, could hamper some vital work of the Department. I think it is very important to remember that net farm income is down 50 percent from where it stood just four years ago. America's farmers and ranchers are struggling, and we need to be extremely careful not to exacerbate these conditions.”

He also again raised the fact that the 2014 Farm Bill will have saved an estimated $100 billion in five years, stating, “Agriculture has done more than its fair share… The bottom line is this is the start of a longer, larger process.  It is a proposal, not THE budget.”

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