Major farm groups are working to ensure that a new coronavirus relief package provides more specific directions to the Agriculture Department on how to distribute $20 billion in additional relief.
The request with perhaps the broadest support among farm groups is for a specific requirement for USDA to make payments to ethanol producers.
Also in play as negotiations continue on the larger package are Democratic demands for expanded domestic food aid, including a temporary increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. According to one key Republican, the biggest snag may be how long the benefit increase is in effect and whether it’s tied to restrictions on SNAP work requirements.
Meanwhile, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, is building support for a plan to help food banks and food processors respond the pandemic. She has added several cosponsors to her Food Supply Protection Act, including Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski.
The legislation, which already was cosponsored by every other member of the Ag Committee as well as Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., includes aid to food banks to add cold storage and other upgrades. Food companies could get grants, loans, and loan guarantees to upgrade machinery, add temporary cold storage and buy personal protective equipment.
It was still not clear as of Tuesday when and if congressional Democrats would reach a deal with the White House on the broader aid package, although both sides have motivation to reach a deal. Congress is scheduled to start a monthlong recess after this week, and lawmakers facing tough reelection races would like to get home to campaign with a new aid bill to talk about. Also, a special federal unemployment benefit of $600 a week expired last Friday.
Schumer suggested at midday Tuesday that the negotiations were moving along although there was little public evidence that a deal was in the works. “We’re making some progress on certain issues, moving closer together,” he told reporters. “I think there is a desire to get something done as soon as we can.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., acknowledged that Republicans remained divided among themselves. "I think I've made it very clear for some time now, if you're looking a total consensus among Republican senators you're not going to find it,” he told reporters.
He also appeared open to supporting the unemployment extension, knowing that other Republicans would vote against the final package. He indicated he would back whatever deal the White House reaches with Democrats "even if I have some problems with certain parts of it."
The big issues in the talks, such as extending the $600 unemployment benefit and the amount of aid for states and schools, have little to do with agriculture, but Democrats support efforts to limit USDA’s flexibility in designing the next round of coronavirus relief to farmers.
The Senate GOP proposal includes a $20 billion direct appropriation to USDA for aid that would be available to both producers and processors. The proposal also would make eligible producers of livestock and poultry that were "depopulated due to insufficient processing access and growers who produce livestock or poultry under a contract for another entity.”
The American Farm Bureau Federation believes that the $20 billion appropriation is sufficient, given that USDA has another $14 billion available in its Commodity Credit Corp. account, but supports the ethanol industry’s effort to specify that ethanol would be eligible for payments.
“We believe flexibility will be key as we head into fall and the election season so that the secretary can be nimble in response to producer needs,” said AFBF’s Andrew Walmsley. “Hopefully, with these additional resources, we can see a program that meets the needs of all of agriculture. With that being said, we would like to see biofuel producers explicitly eligible for assistance.”
Authors of the Senate provision argue that including “processors” as eligible entities is enough to ensure that ethanol producers qualify for payments, but Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters Tuesday that the lack of specificity would lead to pressure on Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to expand the aid to other processors outside the ethanol industry.
It will be difficult to convince Perdue to make payments to ethanol producers “not because he doesn’t want to help ethanol but there’s other segments of agricultural processing that could follow on and want help,” Grassley said, mentioning corn and soybean processors specifically.
Perdue doesn't appear to be "unsympathetic to the need to help ethanol, but he seems to be in a quandary," Grassley said.
The National Cotton Council, meanwhile, wants more specific language in the final bill to ensure that aid can go to cotton producers, merchandisers, and textile manufacturers.
The United Fresh Produce Association is pushing for money to address worker safety, which could be provided through grants, loans, and other programs “that can be used for these infrastructure investments for our critical workforce,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh.
The National Pork Producers Council is lobbying congressional leaders to include provisions of a bill called the RELIEF for Producers Act that includes compensation for euthanized and donated hogs, additional funding for animal health surveillance and laboratories, and expanded statutory authority for use of CCC funds during a pandemic-driven national emergency.
Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, who is in line to become the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee next year, said Perdue needs the flexibility the GOP proposal would provide him because the needs in agriculture could change in coming months. But Boozman said the highest priority is getting the additional $20 billion to USDA.
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“Right now we’re working to get everybody on board in the dollars that we’ve got,” he said.
Many agribusiness groups and food processors are also supporting McConnell’s efforts to include provisions in the aid protections to protect employers from coronavirus-related lawsuits.
A letter to congressional leaders signed by United Fresh, the National Chicken Council, the International Dairy Foods Association and other groups says Congress needs to protect “businesses that have taken necessary precautions to protect their employees and customers while serving the country during the crisis.”
Meanwhile, a 15% increase in SNAP benefits that Democrats are demanding is viewed by some Republicans as a potential tradeoff on issues such as unemployment benefits.
Boozman said one issue is how long a benefit increase would last — he suggested a year might be long enough. Another issue is whether Democrats would insist on blocking SNAP work requirements from ever being tightened. Still, he said that many Republicans are open to increasing nutrition assistance. “We don’t want people going hungry,” he said.
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