The top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee accused the Biden administration on Tuesday of keeping lawmakers in the dark on plans for a new $1 billion climate program.

Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., also used a subcommittee hearing Tuesday to press GOP concerns about USDA’s use of its Commodity Credit Corp. funding authority to pay for the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program, which will fund pilot projects intended to quantify the greenhouse gas impact of low-carbon commodities. 

Robert Bonnie, USDA’s undersecretary for farm production and conservation, sought to assure lawmakers the department was justified in tapping CCC to fund the program because of statutory language authorizing use of the account to facilitate the marketing of farm commodities.

“This is a commodity program. This is a program on working lands ... to incentivize climate-smart practices as part of commodity production, and then to measure and monitor that. So we think we've got a very strong link to the CCC,” Bonnie said.

Thompson said he talked to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Friday — just ahead of his announcement of the program's rules on Monday — and expressed “my frustration with the department working as a lone wolf” to launch the program. “That’s not the way we do things in agriculture,” Thompson said.

Thompson also questioned whether the climate initiative was really a commodity program since the notice of funding opportunity was issued by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

It appears USDA “is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole to avail yourselves of the CCC authorities and funds,” Thompson told Bonnie.

Bonnie didn’t back off. "This is a commodity program, as it is specifically linked to commodity production, and that is important," he said.

“And while it does sit in NRCS, we’ll draw on expertise from across the department, the Office of the Chief Economist, FSA (Farm Service Agency) and others as we as we move forward on this.”

Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga., raised concerns about the administration’s overall focus on climate change.

The administration “is totally focused on climate change, but this is at odds with what I’m hearing at home. I don't hear about climate change.”

Bonnie said the administration’s climate funding will help farmers better prepare for droughts and other natural disasters by “making U.S. agriculture more resilient.”

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“When I go out in the countryside, I hear about drought. I hear about wildfire. I hear about extreme weather events,” he said.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, conceded farmers don’t often raise the climate issue, but she noted that the administration last fall authorized $10 billion in disaster assistance.

“They certainly talk about the economic impact of the adverse weather effects and other things that are directly related to climate change,” she said.

The Senate Agriculture Committee's top Republican, John Boozman of Arkansas, issued a statement to Agri-Pulse that stopped short of opposing the initiative, but promised to "pursue vigorous oversight."

“I’ve always advocated for CCC money to be used for the direct benefit of farmers and the farm community. That is the criteria by which I will evaluate this program," Boozman said. 

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters Tuesday that USDA should get congressional approval to use the CCC for funding nonemergency programs. The CCC authority should generally be reserved to "help farmers when they're in a crunch economically or because of some trade issues or because of just something that's unpredictable," Grassley said. 

The Trump administration tapped CCC to create the Market Facilitation Program to compensate farmers for the impact of retaliatory tariffs and then used it again to provide assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

USDA is allowed to borrow up to $30 billion from CCC to make payments to farmers, and Congress regularly replenishes the account. The CCC is annually used to make commodity program payments and to fund farm loans. 

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