A $1 trillion coronavirus relief package that Senate Republicans are trying to finalize would authorize compensation to livestock and poultry producers and also aid ethanol plants as well as additional direct payments to farmers, a key senator said Thursday.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., told Agri-Pulse the GOP bill tentatively would include a $20 billion direct appropriation to USDA to go with the $14 billion in funding USDA has in its Commodity Credit Crop. account out of the $2 trillion CARES Act enacted in March.
"We’ll trigger using that $14 billion, plus we’re then adding a direct appropriation. … Between the two we’ll have about the same about the same amount as the House does,” said Hoeven, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.
The Democratic-controlled House passed a $3 trillion bill, called the HEROES Act, that authorized $33 billion in agricultural spending, plus another $35 billion in expanded food assistance, including a 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program payments.
The Senate GOP plan wouldn’t increase USDA’s CCC authority. Some farm groups wanted raised its limit raised from $30 billion to at least $50 billion.
But Hoeven said the CCC account would likely be replenished at $30 billion this fall through a continuing resolution that Congress will need to pass to keep the government operating after the 2021 fiscal year begins Oct. 1. USDA also uses the account to distribute payments from various farm programs.
Providing the $20 billion as a direct appropriation, rather than routing it through the CCC account, was done because of budget rules that limit the cost of the spending on paper.
Hoeven emphasized that the details of the bill were tentative pending some final agreements and text. It’s not clear when the bill will be released. It was not clear Thursday afternoon when the bill would be released, which allow congressional Republicans and the White House to move forward with negotiations with the House.
One issue that was still being ironed out, Hoeven said, was an expansion of the Soil Health and Income Protection Program, which was authorized as a 50,000-acre pilot program in the 2018 farm bill.
The HEROES Act would expand the program, championed by Senate GOP Whip John Thune, R-S.D., to 5 million acres and authorize annual payments of $70 an acre to farmers who keep land out of program for three years.
Hoeven said he expected Democrats to seek more restrictions on how Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue can spend the $34 billion that the Senate would provide. He said the bill would authorize USDA to make payments for such issues as depopulation losses suffered by livestock and poultry producers, but ultimately leave it to USDA to decide how to craft the programs.
USDA also would be expected to use the funding in the Senate bill to compensate farmers and ranchers for market losses that weren’t covered by payments from the department’s $16 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. USDA has distributed $6.2 billion so far.
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He said the bill would address some concerns targeted in an $8 billion bill, called the Food Supply Protection Act, that was introduced in May by the Senate Agriculture Committee’s ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow. Every Democrat on Senate Ag as well as Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., are co-sponsors of the bill.
Among other things, Stabenow’s bill includes funding for protective equipment for farmworkers and processing plant employees, aid to food banks to expand their cold storage and funds for restaurants to feed needy Americans.
While the GOP plan addresses issues in the Stabenow measure, “it obviously isn't the way she has in her bill, where she's got $8 billion dedicated solely to those things," Hoeven said.
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