Democrats pushed President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package through the House early Saturday despite progressives' fears about the future of a minimum-wage increase that's included in the measure.
The American Rescue Plan, which would authorize payments of up to $1,400 per person to most Americans, would provide no new direct payments to farmers, but there are $16.1 billion in ag and food provisions approved by the House Agriculture Committee. The House passed the bill 219-212 at about 2 a.m. with only two Democrats breaking party ranks to oppose the measure, Jared Golden of Maine and Kurt Schrader of Oregon. No Republicans voted for it.
Among other things the bill would provide $5 billion in assistance to minority farmers, while $3.6 billion is earmarked to fund commodity purchases and to provide grants and loans to processors, farmers markets, producers and organizations to pay for needs such as workers' personal protection equipment and to retool operations to "maintain and improve food and agricultural supply chain resiliency."
The most controversial of the ag provisions would pay off direct and guaranteed USDA loans held by minority farmers and ranchers. They would get payments worth 120% of the indebtedness to retire the loans and pay the associated taxes.
Republicans argued that the provision would be unfair and had not been properly vetted, but the House Rules Committee declined Friday to allow debate on any GOP amendments to the bill, including a pair proposed by Austin Scott, R-Ga., that targeted the loan issue. One would have expanded the debt relief to white women. Another would have made members of Congress ineligible.
Rep. David Scott, a Georgia Democrat who is the House Ag Committee's first Black chairman, said the provision is needed to address the legacy of discrimination against minority producers and to ultimately increase number of Black farmers. “Nobody has earned the right to be able to have this discrimination removed as (much as) Black farmers," Scott told the Rules Committee during its day-long meeting on the GOP amendments. "We were the pioneer farmers, and not only that, we did it for free under the whip of the slavemaster."
Scott noted that the food supply chain assistance in the stimulus bill also would benefit workers who are people of color.
Several major farm groups supported the debt relief provision, including the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, National Farmers Union, Organic Trade Association and the National Milk Producers Federation.
Before the floor vote, Democratic leaders stripped from the bill a GOP amendment, adopted in committee, that would have earmarked money to compensate producers in Iowa who lost crops to last summer’s derecho. The amendment had been added to the bill when Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, broke party ranks to support it.
The stimulus package also would extend the temporary 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits through September, and there is an additional $6.6 billion in provisions to expand child nutrition assistance.
To address connectivity issues that have plagued rural areas and schools during the pandemic, the bill would set up a $7.6 billion fund to help schools and libraries pay for devices, internet service and Wifi hotspots.
The legislation now goes to the Senate, where the minimum wage is likely to continue to be a focus.
Democrats are using the budget reconciliation process to move the bill through Congress so that the measure won’t need any GOP votes to pass the Senate, but that also limits what issues the bill can address, and the Senate parliamentarian has ruled out of order a provision increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
As an alternative, the chairmen of the Senate Finance and Budget committees, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., respectively, are proposing to impose a penalty on corporations that don’t pay workers enough and offering subsidies to small business owners that increase pay.
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"If you’re a single mom working two minimum wage jobs for $7.25 an hour in Georgia or North Carolina, it is cold comfort to know that majority support for raising the minimum wage is meaningless because of arcane Senate rules,” Wyden said.
A top official with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said Friday that he thought a compromise could be reached on a “fair” increase in the minimum wage. Neil Bradley, the Chamber’s chief policy officer, said in a tweet that it was time for progressives to “focus on a reasonable compromise.”
Farms are generally exempt from federal minimum wage and overtime requirements.
The stimulus package includes widely popular assistance for vaccines and testing as well as aid to schools, local governments and to individuals, including an extension of enhanced unemployment benefits and an increase in the child tax credit to $3,000 per child, or $3,600 for a child under 6.
All adults and their dependents, including adult dependents, would be eligible for the $1,400-per-person stimulus payments that the bill would trigger, but the amounts would be phased down after $75,000 in adjusted gross income for an individual or $150,000 for a married couple. A couple with more than $200,000 in AGI wouldn't receive anything.
Republicans argued that much of the spending was unneeded and unrelated to the pandemic. "They are so embarrassed by all the non-COVID waste in their bill that they are jamming it through in the dead of night," House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in a tweet Friday night.