Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack pushed back against Republican criticism of spending under the SNAP program and from the Commodity Credit Corp. at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing Thursday focused on the farm bill.

To questions from Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, the ranking Republican on the committee, Vilsack insisted, as he has previously, that the department’s update of the Thrifty Food Plan was done in accordance with the provisions in the 2018 farm bill that mandated it. The Thrifty Food Plan is an assessment of eating costs that is used as a basis for SNAP benefits. 

And to Kansas Republican Roger Marshall, who said farmers in his state “feel like how you're using the CCC is outside of the law,” Vilsack noted that the $3.5 billion Partnerships for Climate-Smart Partnerships initiative grew out of suggestions from farm groups.

When it comes to CCC funding, “We’re very careful to stay within the statutory language… and we never ever, ever put at risk farm programs,” he said. 

The CCC is an account USDA regularly uses to make farm and conservation payments, disburse farm loans and purchase surplus commodities. USDA can spend no more than $30 billion from the account without seeking reimbursement from Congress. 

On the climate-smart program specifically, for which 141 projects have been chosen to receive funding, Vilsack said the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, which includes the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union, asked for such a program and said it should be funded through the CCC.

“Virtually every commodity group wanted this program to be set up,” Vilsack told Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who also questioned the use of CCC funding, saying it undercuts the role of Congress in establishing and overseeing farm bill programs. Grassley conceded up-front that he did not question President Donald Trump’s use of the CCC to compensate farmers hurt by that administration’s trade war with China.

Vilsack and Boozman disagreed on the Thrifty Food Plan update, with Boozman saying – as he has done before – that the revisions should have been “cost-neutral.” Vilsack said the 2018 farm bill contained no such language, and that he was not bound by what his predecessor, Sonny Perdue, had done when he began the process of updating the plan.

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Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., spoke up for the TFP update, saying it “resulted in a modest increase to the average SNAP benefit of less than $2 a day – an increase estimated to lift 2.4 million people, including 1 million children, out of poverty.”

Vilsack told Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., that the department is moving as quickly as it can to implement provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act to compensate victims of discriminatory practices in USDA programs.

The secretary said the department’s goal is to begin distributing the $2.2 billion in funding by the end of the year.

USDA recently announced it would appoint a national administrator for the program and use regional hubs and non-profit organizations with experience reaching out to underserved communities to communicate with farmers.

On hiring, Vilsack said the agency is making progress but is hampered by a compensation structure and system that “is no longer as competitive as it once was.”

Vilsack got a few questions on pesticide regulation and the EPA/Army Corps of Engineers “waters of the U.S.” rule. He said farmers need certainty on WOTUS and that USDA offers its expertise to EPA on pesticides.

Asked by Marshall whether EPA is listening to USDA, Vilsack said, “I think they are.”

“When there is a disagreement and EPA enacts [regulations], then it’s our job to mitigate the consequences,” he said.

Also during the hearing, Vilsack emphasized the need to provide assistance to the small farmers who make up the vast majority of the ag landscape. He noted that “while the last couple of years have seen record national farm income, we know that nearly 50% of American farmers have had negative farm income.”

The next farm bill “can – and I believe must – be one that enshrines programs, policies, and investments that safeguard rural communities and also a transformational one that goes further to advance equity and address challenges like climate change that our producers face now and will face for generations to come,” he said in his written testimony.