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Farm and food aid at stake as government shutdown looms

Almost everyone agrees that it's a bad idea to shut down the federal government. The last shutdown, which lasted from Oct. 1 to Oct. 16, stopped all but "excepted" programs and personnel from working and created a whirlwind of uncertainty across the country.

But as the continuing resolution that's currently funding the government is set to expire on April 28, congressional negotiators and the White House are finding it difficult to find compromise on key issues.

Ideally, cooler heads will prevail and lawmakers will pass legislation to fund departments and agencies for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. 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.

But there is a lot at stake and the gamesmanship is at a fever pitch.

President Trump, who completes his first 100 days in office on April 29, is trying to avert a government shutdown this week while also showing progress on major initiatives such as healthcare and tax reform.

Trump expressed confidence that there would be no government shutdown. "I think we're in good shape," Trump told reporters.

Farm bill provisions in play

Cotton and dairy producers have lobbied Congress to provide federal assistance this year and they are hopeful that whatever deal emerges to fund the federal government will also ease their pain.

Cotton growers want to make cotton seed eligible for the Price Loss Coverage program. 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.

Dairy producers would like to see the Margin Protection Program improved to provide additional payments. Chris Galen, a spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation, said 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.

If both groups are successful in getting funding, it will make next year's farm bill "math" a little easier to work with because cotton will once again have baseline funding and dairy will presumably have a higher level of funding. Without additional funding, others who want to make program enhancements or changes will need to suggest cuts in existing programs.

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 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.

At the same time, international aid organizations and their allies also have been urging Congress not to make cuts in food aid being pushed by President Trump. His 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."