Democratic congressional leaders refused to allow replenishment of a key Agriculture Department account, charging that the White House is employing it as a “political slush fund.”
The Trump administration and farm groups had asked Congress to include a provision in a stopgap funding bill to refill the $30 billion Commodity Credit Corp. account that USDA uses to make payments to farmers.
The provision was omitted from the text of the continuing resolution that was released Monday in the Democratic-controlled House. The bill, which the House will vote on later this week, is intended to keep the government open until Dec. 11. The new budget year starts Oct. 1, but Congress hasn’t passed any spending bills for fiscal 2021.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., quickly attacked the CR in a tweet: "House Democrats’ rough draft of a government funding bill shamefully leaves out key relief and support that American farmers need. This is no time to add insult to injury and defund help for farmers and rural America."
The top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow (shown above) of Michigan, backed the exclusion of the CCC provision, saying during the annual Agri-Pulse Ag & Food Policy Summit Monday afternoon that the account would be automatically refilled in November after USDA files its report on CCC spending for fiscal 2020.
She said the department should be able to manage the account adequately to make farm and conservation program payments that are due in October. “It’s irresponsible to not make sure you’ve got those dollars put aside for the regulator October payments,” she said.
Stabenow has been especially critical of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s management of the account, arguing the trade assistance payments made through the Market Facilitation Program have been skewed to southern farmers and large operations.
“We’re in an election year. This has been become a real political issue as opposed to ... looking at the numbers and what needs to happen as a practical manner,” she said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office released a statement explaining the decision that said in part: “What the Trump Administration wanted added to the clean CR wasn’t help for farmers — it was more than $20 billion more taxpayer dollars that the Trump Administration views as a bottomless, unaccountable political slush fund.”
The statement went on to note that Trump announced the new round of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program at a campaign event in Wisconsin last Thursday. USDA announced the rules for the program the next day. The program is being funded with $14 billion Congress provided for the CCC account through the CARES Act, enacted in March. Enrollment for the CFAP-2 payments started Monday and runs through Dec. 11.
The statement also noted reports that the White House wanted to use the CCC account to make payments to small refiners that were recently denied waivers from the Renewable Fuel Standard.
The statement also cited a Government Accountability Office report released last week that analyzed the distribution of MFP payments, which were funded from CCC to compensate farmers for the impact of trade disruptions.
An analysis by the American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Soybean Association estimated the CCC account could have as little as $2 billion available on Oct. 1, not counting the $14 billion earmarked for CFAP, and that USDA is due to make $6.9 billion in commodity and conservation program payments in October.
A letter to congressional leaders signed by more than 40 farm groups said if the CCC isn't replenished this month "payments and programs would be significantly delayed, jeopardizing operations across the country."
The continuing resolution does include several provisions important to various agricultural sectors, including the hemp industry. The bill would extend authority for hemp pilot programs until Sept. 30, 2021. Under current rules, the industry is supposed to be in compliance with state regulations by the end of October.
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Other provisions would extend Livestock Mandatory Reporting Act and Grain Standards Act, both of which are set to expire at the end of the month.
The bill also would ensure that USDA can meet demand for direct and guaranteed farm ownership loans.
The chairman of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, North Dakota Republican John Hoeven, said in a statement to Agri-Pulse that failing to replenish the account will delay the handling of marketing loans as well as the distribution of farm program payments due in October. “This October, November, and December, we expect the CCC will need an additional $15 billion or more to meet their obligations,” the statement said.
The senior Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, Mike Conaway of Texas, appealed to the House Rules Committee Wednesday afternoon to allow floor debate on an amendment that would add the CCC funding. He said that leaving it out was "terrible policy and, frankly, bad politics."
As if to underscore his point, first-term Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne of Iowa released a statement shortly thereafter criticizing the exclusion of the CCC funding. “I am deeply frustrated that once again Washington is playing games with the vital aid that Iowa’s farmers need as they continue to struggle with the long-term effects of a public health crisis, an economic downturn, a trade war, and recent natural disasters,” she said.
The Rules Committee ultimately refused to allow floor debate on both Conaway's amendment and another one offered by first-term Iowa Democrat Abby Finkenauer to fund the CCC account. Both Axne and Finkenauer face tough re-election races.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa., used a tweet to blast Democrats: "HOGWASH alert: House Dems filed funding bill notably excl Commodity Credit Corp $$. Replenishing CCC has long been noncontroversial &is necessary support 4our farmers House Dems shld b ashamed for leaving our farmers in the lurch Sen Ernst & I hv ur back + will fight for farmers." Grassley was referring to Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who is in a tight re-election race.
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