The Government Accountability Office says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had the legal authority to use the Commodity Credit Corporation to fund the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program, a $3.1 billion initiative aimed at building markets for agricultural practices and products that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., had raised questions about whether the climate initiative should be subject to restrictions of a major conservation program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. 

In a legal decision issued Wednesday, GAO General Counsel Edda Emmanuelli Perez says the initiative was “not a part of the grant program authorized by EQIP and, accordingly, not subject to EQIP’s restrictions.”

Her decision goes on to say, “Congress vested in USDA the authority to administer CCC’s authorities and to determine whether a particular program helps ‘increase the domestic consumption of agricultural commodities.’ Because the principal focus of PCSC is on the expansion of markets for climate-smart commodities, we agree that it is authorized by section 5(e) of the CCC Charter Act.”

The CCC is essentially a revolving account, capped at $30 billion, that is replenished annually. 

Marshall, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, also asked whether the Biden administration improperly left another major CCC funding initiative out of its fiscal 2021 budget submission to Congress. Vilsack announced in September 2021 that he was allocating $3 billion from the CCC to combat African swine fever, promote agricultural drought resilience, relieve agricultural supply disruptions and assist schools in dealing with supply issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Backing Vilsack,, the GAO legal decision says government-owned corporations like the CCC aren’t required to “delineate specific programs in their budget submissions prior to carrying them out.”

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In a statement to Agri-Pulse, Marshall said the GAO decision essentially means that USDA "can utilize the CCC as a $30 billion slush fund" without prior approval from Congress. 

“While I think the GAO opinion is a major blow to the oversight powers of Congress, the silver lining is it provides us much-needed clarity on the USDA spending authority as we write a Farm Bill,” Marshall said. “We now know that congressional action is necessary if we wish to reign in this lavish USDA spending under the discretionary portion of the CCC."

A USDA spokesman, however, said in a statement that the legal decision affirms how Vilsack is using the CCC "in a way that is fiscally responsible and has not put farm programs at risk. USDA will continue to use these funds in this way to address the needs of American producers, such as navigating significant and unpredictable challenges, including a changing climate and global food insecurity in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine.”

The legal decision comes as Vilsack is preparing to use the CCC again to provide $1.4 billion for market promotion assistance and $1.1 billion for international food assistance at the request of leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee. USDA has formally notified the House and Senate Appropriations committees of the plan but hasn’t announced it publicly.

Congress imposed restrictions on the fund after Vilsack used it for disaster aid in the 2010 election but ended the curbs as then-President Donald Trump was preparing to initiate a trade war with China in 2018. 

The fiscal 2024 USDA funding bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee would reimpose the restrictions. However, the Senate version of the bill would leave Vilsack's CCC authority intact. 

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