Democrats look to move President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package through the Senate while Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack makes his case for the new administration’s priorities to farm groups this week for the first time in his return to his old job.
The stimulus package, which includes $3.6 billion in aid for the food supply chain as well as $5 billion in historic assistance to minority farmers, passed the House early Saturday 219-212. The American Rescue Plan also includes an increase in domestic food assistance as well as $7.6 billion in funding for connectivity assistance to schools and libraries.
Democrats must figure what to do about the minimum-wage increase that the bill contains; the Senate parliamentarian has ruled the measure out of order under the budget reconciliation rules that Democrats are using to pass the legislation. March 14 is the effective deadline for Congress to get the bill to Biden's desk since expanded unemployment benefits expire then.
Biden this weekend urged senators to quickly finish work on the legislation. “We have no time to waste,” he said. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said the bill addresses “urgent challenges facing our farmers, families, and rural communities. We can’t afford to wait any longer.”
She said the “bill includes bold provisions to feed children and families, bolster the food supply chain, address discrimination for farmers of color, and strengthen rural health care providers.”
Senate Republicans say the package is excessive and that much of the spending is unrelated to the pandemic. Democrats "put forward a package which reflects the interests of the Democratic constituencies that elected the president. Yes, it has things for broader Americans, but much of it is only for those," Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said on CNN's State of the Union on Sunday. He cited warnings by Democratic economist Larry Summers that the spending could ignite inflation.
Vilsack, who is working from his home state of Iowa while USDA offices in Washington are all but shut down, will speak to the National Farmers Union’s annual convention on Monday and on Friday to the Commodity Classic’s virtual attendees.
Commodity Classic is the annual combined convention of groups representing corn, soybean, wheat and sorghum producers as well as the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.
One of Vilsack’s biggest responsibilities will be selling the president’s climate policy to farmers around the country, a job that will be relatively easy with the NFU, which was one of the few ag groups to back the cap-and-trade plan in 2009, but relatively more difficult with conventional growers, especially those in regions that may see smaller economic benefits from carbon markets.
Meanwhile, Biden’s trade policy is a major concern for nearly all U.S. farmers, who have watched a surge in China purchases push commodity prices to the highest levels seen in several years. Biden so far has said very little about trade, and his nominee for trade ambassador, Katharine Tai, said little new during her confirmation hearing last week about how she would approach China.
Vilsack recognizes the uncertainty surrounding China. “The good news is that China seems to be living up to its responsibilities” under the Trump administration’s phase one trade agreement, he told reporters last week. “The bad news is that … at any point in time, because of the complex nature of the Chinese-U.S. relationship, things can happen that might impact and affect those purchases.”
Meanwhile, rural issues will get an airing at the White House this week.
The Rebuild Rural Coalition, a group of more than 250 organizations advocating for investment in rural America's infrastructure, has a briefing scheduled with the White House Thursday, according to comments made during the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture's winter policy meeting.
Robbie Boone of the Farm Credit Council said the White House is expected to provide an update to the coalition on its infrastructure plans going forward. The Association of Public and Land Grant Universities is also expected to bring the administration up to speed on agriculture research efforts.
“Ag infrastructure and research is an investment that benefits farms of all sizes, all commodity groups, all of our communities, and helps stimulate the local economy and global economic growth,” said Doug Steele, vice president of food, agriculture and natural resources for APLU.
In 2016 alone, China outspent the U.S. in agriculture investment by nearly $3 billion, Steele said. “In fact, we are no longer even in the top five of agriculture R&D in the world anymore,” he said.
Also on Capitol Hill this week, the Senate will continue working on confirming Biden’s Cabinet nominees. Floor votes are scheduled on Miguel Cardona to be education secretary, Gina Raimondo to be commerce secretary and Cecilia Rouse to chair the Council of Economic Advisers. Other nominees awaiting action include Michael Regan, Biden’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
In the House, an Appropriations subcommittee will put a spotlight Tuesday on how meatpackers have handled the COVID-19 pandemic, including how well they are protecting workers. In the spring, numerous processors were forced to shut down or curtail operations because of outbreaks among workers. The reduced processing capacity in some cases forced producers to euthanize animals.
The witnesses will include Dulce Castañeda, a founding member of a group called Children of Smithfield, an organization for families of meatpacking workers, and Iris Figueroa, director of economic and environmental justice at Farmworker Justice.
Here is a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere (all times EDT):
Monday, March 1
National Farmers Union annual meeting, though Tuesday.
1 p.m. — Senate Judiciary Committee meeting to consider the nomination of Merrick Garland to be attorney general, 216 Hart.
Tuesday, March 2
Commodity Classic, through Friday.
10 a.m. — House Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, "Health and Safety Protections for Meatpacking, Poultry, and Agricultural Workers.”
10 a.m. — Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on the nomination of Gary Gensler to be a member of the Securities Exchange Commission.
10:30 a.m. — House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on the future of telehealth.
Wednesday, March 3
10 a.m. — Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the nomination of Brenda Mallory to chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality and Janet McCabe to be deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, 562 Dirksen.
Thursday, March 4
8:30 a.m. — USDA releases Weekly Export Sales report.
10 a.m. — House Ways and Means subcommittee hearing on reauthorizing trade adjustment assistance.
10:15 a.m. — Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing on the nominations of Shalanda Young to be deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and Jason Miller to be deputy director for OMB, 342 Dirksen.
Friday, March 5
12:30 p.m. — Vilsack speaks to Commodity Classic.
Ben Nuelle contributed to this report.
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