Perdue favors commodity food aid, distances himself from rescissions
During his annual testimony before the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Wednesday he favors the distribution of American commodities as food aid rather than providing cash that can be used to buy foodstuffs from other countries.
Perdue said he is pleased to able to “claim plausible deniability” about White House discussions on asking congress to pull back some of the money in the massive omnibus appropriations bill that passed several weeks ago. He also said that trade negotiations need to take place before he considers using his authorities to make payments to farmers to keep them from being victims of trade conflicts.
Perdue devoted only one paragraph to the Trump administration’s proposed $272 billion in cuts to Agriculture Department programs, and another paragraph to the proposed “America’s Harvest Box” initiative that would replace part of the benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that beneficiaries use in grocery stores with boxes of food staples.
No senator asked about the harvest boxes, but several senators took a cue from Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Hoeven, R-N.D., who said he could go along with parts of the Trump budget but not with the cuts to USDA programs.
“While I support many proposals, such as support for the military, we can’t put the burden of balancing the budget solely on the backs of our farmers,” Hoeven said.
Senate Agriculture Appropriations ranking member Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., noted he had visited feeding sites in troubled foreign countries and questioned the administration’s proposals to cut international food aid programs.
Perdue noted that people who have visited a feeding site “come back changed” and told Merkley that if the subcommittee appropriates money for feeding programs, “we will use it.”
Without prompting, Perdue added, “Let us use commodities grown by U.S. growers” rather than backing proposals to provide cash that the Agency for International Development and international groups can use to buy food from other countries.
That statement puts Perdue in opposition to a proposal by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to make changes to U.S. food aid programs.
Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he was particularly concerned that the Trump administration might propose rescissions to the money appropriated for water and sewer facilities, broadband and community facilities programs.
Perdue again said USDA is “grateful” for the appropriations and added, “I agree with you: Once a budget is set, it would require extreme collaboration to look at any rescissions.”
Several senators told Perdue that fears about trade retaliation are a top concern for farmers.
After Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told Perdue that farmers are much more concerned about trade conflicts than the farm bill, the secretary said that the Trump administration is not asking farmers to “be the casualties in a trade dispute.” Perdue said he was pleased that Chinese officials have indicated some willingness to talk, but he added that “over the years,” the Chinese have talked and talked and nothing has happened.
Perdue noted that some Chinese people had been found in Iowa several years ago digging up seed to get the intellectual property.
Told that farmers are also worried about the administration’s commitment to the Renewable Fuel Standard, Perdue acknowledged that anxiety over the RFS and trade are “having a cumulative effect.”
Perdue said that USDA has asked EPA for information on how many waivers to the use of renewable fuels EPA has granted and what impact that has on the government’s commitment to the use of 15 billion gallons of biofuels per year.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said, “It is unacceptable to cut crop insurance” and asked if the Trump administration’s proposed cuts were “just a way to make the budget look better.”
“You rightly articulated my view of crop insurance,” Perdue replied.
Tester said he is worried about a farm crisis like the one in the 1980s and that he does not want to lose his own farm or for other Montana farmers to lose theirs.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, noted that organic farming in her state has reversed the decline in the number of farmers and questioned the administration’s proposed cut to organic research. But Perdue said there are “deficiencies” in all areas of research.
Collins noted that the European Union and Canada have signed a free trade agreement that gives an advantage to Canadian lobster over Maine lobster, and said there needs to be robust funding for the Market Access Program that the Maine fishing industry uses to promote its products.
Perdue told Collins that he has had discussions with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross about including seafood and other issues related to the Canadian-EU free trade agreement in the Trump administration’s discussions with the European Union about their exemption from the steel and aluminum tariffs.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., noted that Wisconsin farmers are worried about the “devastating impact” that Chinese tariffs can have on products such as pork and ginseng.
Perdue pledged to use the resources given to USDA in the omnibus appropriations bill to protect farmers from trade conflicts, but said the administration’s “first goal is negotiate ourselves out of the saber rattling that has occurred.”
After the hearing, Perdue told reporters that he did not want to discuss the details of his authorities to help farmers in the trade dispute because “it doesn’t help to lay all our cards on the table.”
But he said he believes the existence of the authorities to help the farmers in trade disputes helps in the negotiations with the Chinese.
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