House Democrats accused Republicans of breaking the debt ceiling agreement by advancing a fiscal 2024 spending bill for USDA and FDA that would cut funding to near FY22 levels while also relying on funding rescissions that have little chance of being enacted. 

The measure approved by the House Appropriations Committee on a party-line, 34-27 vote Wednesday would provide a total of $25.3 billion for USDA, FDA and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a reduction of 2% from the amount they got for FY23. Even that funding level is shaky; the legislation relies on a mix of about $8 billion in cuts to pandemic assistance and Inflation Reduction Act allocations to USDA.

Republicans used the amendment process to modify the package of rescissions to soften the impact on rural electric cooperatives: The bill’s cut to an IRA clean energy funding for RECs was reduced from $3.25 billion to $1 billion. As an offset, the bill also was amended to eliminate an equivalent amount of funding provided through the IRA to aid victims of USDA discrimination. 

The chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., said the overall spending bill “takes the same approach American families take every day — they have to do more with less under the Biden economy. American families decide every day where to cut back spending to pay for what’s most important. 

“We are not appropriating Monopoly money — it’s hard-earned taxpayer dollars, and sometimes tough decisions have to be made — and this bill makes those decisions,” he added.

The chairwoman of the full committee, Kay Granger, R-Texas, said the debt ceiling agreement “set a ceiling, not a floor” for FY24 spending; the deal included provisions to keep spending flat in FY24 with a 1% increase in FY25.

The top Democrat on the full committee, Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said the GOP's legislation “is a perfect example of how House Republicans mislead the American people,” noting that the bill’s base allocation, before recovering $8 billion from rescissions, is $17 billion, far below the FY22 spending level, which was $25.1 billion.

Republicans “do not want to adhere to the bipartisan agreement set by the president and the speaker, and which passed with many of their votes. Instead, they continue to pursue the biggest cuts in recorded history,” she said. 

She said the $8 billion in funding cuts were “politically untenable” and “completely detached from reality because most of these rescissions will likely not be available by next year.”

Republicans also are using the bill to flag a series of policy issues, including Chinese ownership of U.S. farmland. The original bill included language to strengthen USDA reporting on foreign farmland purchases; on Wednesday, Republicans won approval of an amendment that would require the department to take “any action as may be necessary” to stop nonresident aliens and foreign businesses associated with “Russia, North Korea, Iran and the Chinese Communist Party” from buying U.S. farmland. 

Democrats argued only the Treasury Department, not USDA, had the authority to block purchases of U.S. land by those countries. But Republicans, led by Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington, argued USDA still had a role to play, even if it had to rely on putting pressure on Treasury. 

“We can no longer ignore the writing on the wall. We must act to stop this threat now before it becomes too late,” said Newhouse. USDA’s role could be as little as appealing to the Treasury Department to be included in the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which reviews foreign acquisitions of U.S. assets, Newhouse noted.

Georgia Rep. Sanford Bishop, the top Democrat on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, said the amendment was “offensive to members of the Asian community.” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said the measure was “pointless, xenophobic messaging and nothing more than that.”

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Republicans denied the amendment was intended to target people of Asian descent, although China is the primary focus. Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa, said the amendment would send “a very clear message that our secretary of agriculture needs to be working with other departments” to curb foreign farmland purchases.

The committee defeated several Democratic amendments, including efforts that would have reversed the bill’s IRA rescissions, including the cut to rural electric co-op funding, a $2 billion reduction in assistance to distressed borrowers and a $500 million cut to USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program.

The proposed cut to RECs clearly had raised concerns with Republicans, however, because Harris proposed a manager’s amendment to reduce the cut to $1 billion by cutting funding for USDA’s IRA account for addressing past discrimination. Harris said the latter program was unjustified. “My farmers don’t like this program. They think it’s unfair,” Harris said.

He also argued the funding for distressed borrowers was unmerited, saying USDA was looking at giving the money to farmers who had been forced to dip into retirement accounts or take similar steps to make loan payments.

Democrats roundly criticized the bill's reduction in funding for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition assistance program, including the elimination of a bonus benefit for fruits and vegetables. But when Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., attempted to restore the WIC cut, Harris responded by proposing to offset the increase with another $500 million reduction to REAP. Underwood withdrew her amendment. 

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