Democrats forced a $16.1 billion agriculture stimulus plan through the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday, brushing aside Republican assertions that a provision providing debt relief for minority farmers was far too broad and could face legal challenges.

The package, which was approved on a party-line 25-23 vote during a seven-hour virtual meeting with members scattered across the country, will be folded into a broader $1.9 trillion stimulus bill backed by President Joe Biden. 

Democrats defeated almost every GOP attempt to alter the measure, including two amendments that would have scaled back provisions that will pay off USDA farm loans held by minority producers.

Committee Chairman David Scott, a Georgia Democrat who is the committee’s first Black Democrat, vigorously defended the debt relief plan. “There has been no one who has been discriminated in the whole agriculture industry like African Americans, who deserve some compassion and understanding,” he said.

“We African Americans were the pioneers in agriculture … We had to do it for no compensation as slaves in this country, and ever since then we’ve been trying to bring justice to that.”

The committee's stimulus provisions also include $4 billion in aid for the food supply chain as well as an extension through the summer of a temporary 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

Republicans repeatedly complained that they were not allowed to help write the package and said it omitted assistance for key rural needs such as broadband expansion, but they directed some of their sharpest criticism at the debt relief plan.

Under that provision, which is the result of discussions that started with the Biden transition team, a farmer who qualifies as socially disadvantaged, under a definition in the 1990 farm bill, could get a payment worth 120% of the amount they owe on a USDA direct or guaranteed loan. The additional 20% is intended to cover the taxes the farmers would owe on the debt-relief payment.

Democratic members of the committee initially struggled to explain whether white women would qualify for the payments, but a committee staffer said it would be limited to Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Americans.

But Scott argued that the ultimate goal of the debt relief was to increase the number of Black farmers, who now represent just 1% of all producers, he said.

Rep. Austin Scott, a Georgia Republican who is white and of no relation to the chairman, noted USDA had paid out $2.2 billion in settlements for discrimination against Black farmers starting in 1999.

“The idea that the federal government can write a check for 120% of someone’s outstanding loan balance when we’ve already settled the cases from 1999 and 2010, I think It’s wrong, and I think it’s unconstitutional,” said Scott. He noted eligible farmers wouldn’t have to prove they had been discriminated against.

Rep. Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, argued it would be unprecedented for the federal government to provide debt relief to a group of people for more than what they owed. It “would be more clear, fair and responsible to cap this forgiveness at 100%, just as all our other loans are at this point,” he said.

But committee Democrats defeated his amendment to cap the payments at 100% of indebtedness as well as a proposal by Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., to limit the debt relief to loans that minority farmers had taken out as a result of the pandemic. Hartzler said her amendment would have kept the bill focused on coronavirus relief.

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Republicans highlighted other complaints about the bill by forcing a series of votes aimed at directing funds to fix what they saw as shortcomings.

One of the amendments was adopted when Iowa Democrat Cindy Axne crossed party lines to support a proposal by Feenstra to dedicate some of the bill’s funding to farmers in Iowa that suffered crop damage from last summer’s derecho.

Amendments that Democrats rejected included a proposal by the committee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson of Pennsylvania, that would have redirected some of the bill’s money to rural broadband, distance learning, rural hospitals and other needs.

Rep. Michelle Fischbach, R-Minn., inadvertently highlighted deficiencies in rural broadband while trying to defend Thompson’s amendment. “The digital divide is something that is very, very real in my district,” she said. Moments later she lost her connection to the hearing.

Another defeated amendment, proposed by Rodney Davis, R-Ill., would have earmarked funding for biofuel producers. “We’re debating relief and our farmers, and biofuel producers they need relief,” Davis said.

But Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., suggested the amendment was proposed in bad faith to divide Democrats. She noted that the omnibus spending bill enacted in December specifically authorized coronavirus relief for biofuel plants.

Also defeated was a proposal by Feenstra to give small and medium-size processors priority in commodity purchases that would be funded by the aid package.

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