Peterson to conduct broad inquiry into food situation, propose changes

-The Hagstrom Report

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said today that he is so horrified by the government’s response to agriculture and food amid the coronavirus pandemic that he will conduct a broad investigation into the Agriculture Department’s powers and propose legislation to deal with future situations such as the arrival of African swine fever in the United States.

Noting that his callers who ask why farmers are dumping milk, plowing under fruits and vegetables and euthanizing animals included actor Richard Gere, Peterson told reporters by telephone, “I am sick and tired of answering questions that I can’t answer. After this is over, we will have an answer or I won’t be chairman of the ag committee anymore.”

Peterson also said that he will propose increasing the budget for the Agriculture Department’s Commodity Credit Corporation, a line of credit at the Treasury used to aid farmers in distress, from $30 billion per fiscal year to $68 billion, but only if the legislation requires that the agriculture secretary seek approval from the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Agriculture committees before spending the money.

Peterson noted that CCC’s allowance to spend $30 billion per year with automatic reimbursement from Congress was established in the 1980s and that the $68 billion would allow the account to keep up with inflation. Peterson said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would support the proposal and that Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told him that he believes there would be support for the idea in the Senate.

Requiring the agriculture secretary to seek approval from the committee leaders “is a two-edged sword,” Peterson said. It makes his life complicated but he has “someone else to blame” if there are controversies over the spending. “I just can’t allow the department to do this on their own.”

The requirement for congressional oversight should be retroactive, Peterson said, adding that he has urged Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to stop the rulemaking for the payments to farmers that is now going forward until the situation is clearer. Peterson said he fears that some farmers will get money they don’t need while others who need it desperately won’t get it.

Peterson said that coronavirus-related aid so far has been handled by appropriators but “they are not the experts” and that any change to the CCC would come under his authorizing committee’s jurisdiction. “If the farm bill is going to be kind of an afterthought, which is what it is at this point, then it is out of control.” But Peterson said any changes to the CCC would have to be part of a coronavirus aid bill so that the entire farm bill would not be reopened.

Peterson noted that Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., has proposed a $50 billion increase to the CCC, but he said he would not support it without strings attached.

Peterson said he believes many of the problems are related to the powers that various divisions of the Agriculture Department have and don’t have.

Peterson said pork producers must have indemnity payments for the hogs or they will go bankrupt, but that Agriculture Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Services Greg Ibach told him that USDA has authority to make indemnity payments only when animals are killed because they are sick, and also that USDA has no money to make the payments.

Peterson said he believes USDA does have authority, but human disease has to be added to the reasons that USDA can make indemnity payments and that the human disease provision should be retroactive.

The House Agriculture Committee should undertake broad hearings to develop a program that would be in place before the next crisis, Peterson said, adding he believes that will be the arrival of African swine fever from China.

The committee should also conduct a complete review of the Agriculture Department’s systems for buying food and distributing it because at present it takes four or five months. “That bureaucracy has got to be broken down,” Peterson said.

But Peterson said he doesn’t really understand why the USDA provides food for food banks when the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is such an efficient way for low-income people to get food through grocery stores. It might be better to put more money into SNAP benefits and leave donations to food banks to private volunteerism, he said.

He also said it will be important to bring in witnesses from agencies other than USDA to figure out how COVID-19 spreads. The COVID-19 infection rate in Nobles County, Minn., where the Worthington JBS USA plant is located, is the same rate as New York City. No one knows how COVID-19 is spreading from plant to plant, but Peterson noted that in the case of high path aviation influenza it was determined that it came into plants originally through wild birds in air ducts but that it spread when workers from several plants lived together and spread the disease from one farm to another. Peterson said he has been told that workers from several of the meat plants live together.

Peterson said he does not know whether U.S. firms are still exporting pork amid possible domestic shortages but that it would “probably” be a good idea to keep the meat in the United States. Peterson noted that he has told both the dairy and the pork industries that exports should be “gravy” rather than a safety net because “you can’t control it.”

The committee, he added, needs to function but found it difficult to practice social distancing at a recent informal meeting. Peterson said members were seated throughout the room. Chairs were put 6 feet apart, but “we had a hard time to keep people apart.”

“We need to be able to do business” including calling witnesses, he said.

Peterson added that he has talked about how to conduct business with Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a committee member who chairs the House Rules Committee and has been working on how the House could vote remotely.

A longtime fiscal conservative concerned with the federal deficit, Peterson concluded by saying he is “very uncomfortable” with the way Congress is spending money “without paying for it.” Peterson said he thought about voting against the last coronavirus aid package and that he could end up voting against the next one.