The Farm Bill made headlines this past Wednesday with news that the Bill passed in the House without including funding for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. As funding for this nutrition program, as well as other major food and farm programs, becomes the central question in future Farm Bill proceedings, it’s important to have a general idea of how these different programs are funded.

Breaking Down the Farm Bill, graphic by Lauren McKown

Breaking Down the Farm Bill, graphic by Lauren McKown.

The Farm Bill is an omnibus piece of legislation, which means it contains multiple programs. These programs can be broken down into two general categories: mandatory programs (also known as entitlement programs) and discretionary programs (non-entitlement programs).

For mandatory programs, the federal government commits to spending whatever amount of money is necessary to ensure the implementation of the program. The committees in charge of crafting this legislation are known as authorizing committees, and there is one committee in the Senate and one in the House of Representatives. Traditionally, the majority of farm programs (about 80%) have been mandatory programs. This category also includes legislation such as SNAP, commodity price supports and some conservation programs.

For discretionary programs, lawmakers outline a program (aka “authorize it”), but the money is not automatically provided. Rather, funding for the program is not available until resources are allocated by the appropriations committees. Appropriations committees are present in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, just as the agriculture committees are. Within each appropriations committee, there is a subcommittee that specializes in food and agricultural policy.

While the Farm Bill and the agriculture committees that write the first drafts are in the spotlight, it’s the appropriations committees that are the gatekeepers for annual funding levels for discretionary programs. The committees hold considerable power over discretionary programs, as they dictate the annual funding levels for a number of farm conservation programs, most rural development programs, research and education programs, agricultural credit programs and beginning farmer programs.

Trying to estimate spending levels for agriculture and nutrition programs is no easy task. To make budgeting more manageable, legislators think incrementally about spending cuts or increases by using the previous year’s spending as a baseline. This strategy applies to both funding for mandatory and discretionary programs.

As news of the House’s nutrition-free Farm Bill spreads this week, questions about this program and other key Farm Bill programs will likely center around funding. Hopefully, this brief background on the two major ways programs are funded will help you navigate these nebulous Farm Bill debates with a little more clarity.  Have some other questions about the Farm Bill process?  Send us an email ( and we’ll write about it!

One Response to “Learning to Speak Farm Bill: Funding for Mandatory v. Discretionary Programs”
  1. Edna T says:

    Keep up the great work you guys- I have so much faith in your generation’s ability to set a better course for our planet.

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