Harris criticizes Vilsack on budget, Thrify Food Plan, CCC
By Jerry Hagstrom, The Hagstrom Report
|House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris, R-Md., severely criticized Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Thursday at a hearing on President Biden’s fiscal year 2024 budget request, and told him to respond only when asked a question.|
By the end of the hearing, Harris’s manner earlier seemed more like political theater than a serious conflict, but Vilsack signaled to reporters he will work hard to defend his use of the Commodity Credit Corporation, USDA’s line of credit at the Treasury Department, and his management of other USDA programs.
|In his opening statement, Harris told Vilsack:|
▪ The budget President Biden proposed for USDA is “unrealistic and unattainable.”
▪ The rewrite of the Thrifty Food Plan that led to a $1.19 per day increase in benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was ”politically motivated.”
▪ He ”cannot be trusted” with “discretion” to manage the Commodity Credit Corporation because he used that spending authority to launch the Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities.
▪ The revival of Obama-era changes to the Packers and Stockyards Act risks harming producers and driving production offshore.
In his opening statement, Vilsack delivered the same message that he has in other recent speeches and appearances before Congress: that despite record farm income, 50% of farmers in the country are not making money, 40% are making most of their profit from off-farm jobs, and only the 10% of farmers who are selling more than $1 million in products each year are making substantial incomes.
It’s important to find ways for farmers to receive additional streams of income, Vilsack said. He also said that more than 80 farm groups had encouraged him to set up the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities using the CCC and that USDA had received 1,000 applications and funded 41 projects.
In the initial question-and-answer period, Harris told Vilsack that it was ”great that 80 groups got together and talked you into this.”
But those ”special interest groups,” Harris said, don’t have authority to run “the policy of the country.”
Harris acknowledged that under current law Vilsack had the authority to use the CCC to start the climate-smart initiative. “We put in a loophole that you used,” Harris said, signaling that he thinks Congress should restrict the use of CCC in the appropriations process.
When Vilsack attempted to respond to Harris’s statements, Harris asked him if he had heard a question mark at the end of his statement, and told Vilsack he should respond only when asked a question.
Harris also told Vilsack that he had “the Constitution backwards” and that legislative powers come first, before the executive branch. Vilsack responded that under the separation of powers he believes the three branches of government are equal.
|Democrats beginning with Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., the subcommittee ranking member, defended Vilsack’s actions and focused their comments on Republican proposals to cut federal spending across the board.|
Bishop also gave Vilsack time to respond to Harris’s comments and noted that a letter from Vilsack analyzing Republicans’ proposed cuts to USDA spending is on the House Appropriations Committee website. Vilsack pointed out that the CCC had been established in 1933 as a line of credit at the Treasury Department at a time of great turmoil in agriculture and gives the agriculture secretary authority to both stabilize prices and create new markets for U.S. farmers.
During the hearing, Vilsack’s office sent reporters an overview of CCC expenditures in recent years. Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Vilsack said that his authority is not a loophole, and he read provisions from the CCC Charter Act that grant the secretary authority to help farmers.
When Vilsack was secretary during the Obama administration, Congress did put some restrictions on the use of the CCC which he said made use of the CCC slower and more complicated. After President Trump was elected, appropriators removed the restrictions.
He also noted that he didn’t hear any “hue and cry” when Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary in the Trump administration, “emptied the CCC” making payments to farmers to deal with the loss of Chinese markets due to the Trump tariffs on Chinese products and had to go to Congress for more budget authority.
Vilsack also said he did not consider the farm groups that asked for the creation of the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities to be “special interests.”
Harris and Vilsack also had an exchange over the issue of what foods SNAP beneficiaries can buy.
Harris asked if there are efforts to restrict what SNAP beneficiaries can buy as there are in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children. Vilsack replied that, while SNAP has educational programs for beneficiaries, USDA does not want “to stigmatize” consumers. Harris said that restricting SNAP purchases of sugary drinks would be “a huge area of opportunity” to improve the nation’s nutrition.
None of Harris’s Republican committee members followed his style of rhetoric and, in fact, addressed Vilsack in a political and respectful tone when asking about programs important to their constituents.
|Rep. John Moolenar, R-Mich., said he believes the amount of unspent, unobligated pandemic-related funds in government agencies amounts to $70 to $90 billion, and that the money could be used for debt reduction.|
Vilsack told him he could not say how much USDA has in unobligated, unspent funds but “we didn’t get a tremendous amount.” While the COVID-19 pandemic is over, Vilsack said, the food system still needs more help to become resilient.
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said she believes there will be “a huge debate” in the farm bill over restricting access to SNAP.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said his priority is “a stable and legal workforce” and Vilsack said he regretted that the Senate did not pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.
Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., asked Vilsack what USDA is doing to address the issue of children working in food production plants.
Underwood noted that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has inspectors in every meat and poultry plant in the country, and said inspectors should feel “empowered” to report any sightings of “vulnerable children” working in those plants.
Vilsack said USDA and the Labor Department are sending a letter to meat companies urging them to be aware of the contractors that they employ and their labor practices regarding children.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, told Vilsack she likes his “focus on farm income,” that nurseries in her district need workers, and that she is considering writing a separate Great Lakes title in the farm bill to deal with water issues in the region.
At the end of the hearing, Harris told Vilsack that they “disagree on some issues but I look forward to working with you,” and walked down from the dias to speak with Vilsack for several minutes across the witness table.
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