The chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on Thursday accused Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack of exploiting a “loophole” in USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp. account to fund $3 billion in climate-related projects. 

Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., dismissed Vilsack’s defense that a coalition of major farm groups called the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance had proposed using the CCC for funding the initiative, known as the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities, which is intended to promote the development of markets for commodities with a lower carbon footprint

“Eighty special interest groups do not run the policy of this country,” Harris told Vilsack in an unusually heated exchange, referring to the ag groups that are part of FACA, including the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. 

Vllsack told Harris the coalition had proposed using as much as $50 billion for the initiative. 

“The reality is under the Commodity Credit Corp.’s charter, we had every right to do what we did,” Vilsack said.

Harris shot back, “We put in a loophole that you used. I get it.”

Vilsack had come to the hearing, his third on Capitol Hill in three days, armed with a handwritten text of the 1933 CCC charter act, a portion of which he later read out to reporters. He noted the specific legal authority “to increase the domestic consumption of agricultural commodities by expanding or aiding in the expansion of domestic markets … or by developing or aiding in the development of new and additional markets.” 

The CCC also is authorized, he noted, to increase foreign markets for U.S. commodities, which also is a goal of the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities. 

He told reporters that any new restrictions on his CCC authority would slow the department’s ability to respond to problems in the farm economy. 

He also said his predecessor, Sonny Perdue, had actually “emptied” the CCC account, referring to the fact that Perdue had to ask Congress to replenish the funding. USDA is allowed to borrow up to $30 billion from the account without it being replenished. USDA regularly uses the account to make commodity and conservation payments as well as to purchase surplus commodities. 

According to a USDA fact sheet provided to media, “In FY18, FY19 and FY20, aggressive use of CCC authority forced USDA to seek continuing resolution anomalies from Congress to replenish funding early to continue making payments. This aggressive use of the CCC would have put Farm Bill programs in jeopardy if early funding could not have been secured. Such anomalies have not been necessary under Secretary Vilsack’s management of the CCC.”

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In government parlance, an "anomaly" is a modification to existing spending authority.

The FY18 and FY19 funding was largely directed to the Market Facilitation Program, which was intended to offset the impact of then-President Donald Trump’s trade war with China. The FY20 funding was heavily directed toward COVID-19 relief.

Harris didn't say whether he would attempt to reimpose restrictions on Vilsack's ability to use the CCC, as Republicans did after they took control of the House in 2011. The restriction was later removed during the Trump administration.

It's not clear Harris would even have support for new restrictions. Thursday’s hearing was the first time this week Vilsack had received significant pushback from a lawmaker on the CCC issue. 

During the exchange with Vilsack, Harris demanded he stop interrupting him unless he was specifically asked a question. At one point, Harris suggested Congress had primacy over the executive branch by virtue of the order in which they are addressed in the Constitution. 

Vilsack responded to that, “We’re equal in our democracy, Mr. Chairman.” 

After the hearing, Harris approached Vilsack and they had an extended conversation that was largely inaudible.

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