The House Agriculture Committee is split along partisan lines over a bill that would create a special investigator in the Agriculture Department to look into allegations of unfair practices by meat and poultry processors.
The division over the measure sponsored by Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., represented a sharp break from the bipartisan approach the House has taken so far to addressing livestock market concerns. A committee vote on the legislation was postponed until Wednesday.
A similar bill sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is pending before the Senate Agriculture Committee, along with a separate measure sponsored by Sens. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that would require USDA to mandate minimum levels of cash trading in cattle markets. Tester's bill has several Republican co-sponsors, including Grassley and Mike Rounds, R-S.D.
Spanberger argued that the Justice Department doesn’t have the resources to adequately investigate antitrust concerns in the meat industry. “We know that DOJ is expected to oversee an overwhelming number of industries and they have only so much capacity to bring cases forward,” she said.
But Republicans claimed her bill would enable an administration to harass meat processors for political reasons and blame them for problems they hadn’t caused. At the same time, GOP members argued that the investigator's office would duplicate the staff USDA already has in its Packers and Stockyards Division.
All of the major livestock and poultry industry groups, including the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council and National Chicken Council, are opposed to the legislation.
An amendment requiring the investigator to be a career public employee rather than a political appointee did little to win over GOP members.
In an angry exchange with Spanberger, Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., said, “You’re trying to create a scapegoat for your failed economic policies."
He said that authorizing the investigator’s office would create “another policing program under USDA that is going to increase the cost of groceries on our constituents.”
The committee separately advanced by unanimous consent a series of bills intended to address supply chain issues and promote the adoption of conservation practices.
A couple of the bills are in line with initiatives the Biden administration is taking to address ag input costs and increase meatpacking capacity.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Josh Harder, D-Calif., would authorize the appropriation of $750 million to USDA to cover the full cost of nutrient management practices under EQIP in 2022 and 2023. President Joe Biden last week announced that the administration would seek to use EQIP and the Conservation Stewardship Program to prioritize assistance for nutrient management practices.
“As fertilizer prices surge, folks need alternatives, and this addresses that,” Harder said of his bill.
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The Butcher Block Act, sponsored by Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., and Spanberger would authorize USDA to provide loans through fiscal 2024 for increased meat processing capacity, building on a program the department has already overtaken.
The committee also bill called the SUSTAINS and PRECISE Acts. The SUSTAINS bill would allow corporations to provide funding for USDA conservation programs. The bill “would encourage more private sector investment in conservation” at a time when companies are trying to cut the greenhouse gas emissions in their supply chains, said Pennsylvania Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, the ranking Republican on the committee.
The PRECISE Act would increase cost-share and practice payments under EQIP and CSP for the purchase of precision agriculture equipment and systems and encourage private sector financing of precision agriculture equipment through the Conservation Loan Guarantee Program and the Business and Industry Loan Guarantee Program.
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