Senate to meet House on size of Ag coronavirus aid package
Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Hoeven, R-N.D., told The Hagstrom Report recently that he believes the Senate coronavirus aid package will contain about the same amount of money for agriculture programs as the House HEROES Act, but that the nutrition provisions will be up to the top Senate leadership.
In a telephone interview, Hoeven said that the Agriculture Department can start with the $14 billion that was previously allocated to the Commodity Credit Corporation and that Congress will bump that up so that USDA has about $33 billion to $35 billion in additional money for farmers.
Hoeven said he believes the HEROES Act contains about $68 billion for agriculture and nutrition and that $33 billion of that — including the $14 billion in CCC money — is for aid to farmers and ranchers.
USDA could not use the $14 billion until July 1 but can now use that money to pay out the rest of the $16.5 billion promised to farmers and ranchers under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, Hoeven said.
The Senate bill will also contain language giving the Agriculture Department discretion to make payments to ethanol plants and aid to livestock producers who had to kill their animals because they could not get them slaughtered. Iowa Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst have been pushing hard for aid to both the ethanol plants and pork producers.
But Hoeven said the authority for USDA to use the CCC payment mechanism for purposes broader than what’s in the CCC Charter Act would be for only one year, not a permanent change as some farm leaders have proposed. The bill would also not permanently increase the CCC spending authority to at least $50 billion, as he had proposed, Hoeven said. The problem, he added, is a scoring issue because if the increase is permanent the Congressional Budget Office will score it for 10 years, which will add to the cost of the bill.
Questions have been raised about whether USDA will need some of the $14 billion for regular farm commodity and conservation payments, but Hoeven said he believes those obligations can be met through the fiscal year 2021 Agriculture appropriations bill or a continuing resolution.
Hoeven said he has been working on the agriculture provisions with Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and that the two of them have been keeping Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., informed. Roberts is retiring, and Boozman is likely to be the top Republican on the Ag committee next year.
Hoeven said he and Boozman have also been in contact with Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., but that there will be further negotiations with Senate Democrats. Hoeven signaled he expects there “will continue to be discussions on how prescriptive” the bill will be and how much discretion USDA will have.
He and Boozman have also kept House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and House Agriculture ranking member Michael Conaway, R-Texas, in the loop, Hoeven said.
Hoeven said he has been in discussions about nutrition and hopes that there can be some compromise between the Democrats’ position on increasing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and the Republicans’ opposition. But Hoeven said he wants to “make sure” any increase in nutrition spending “doesn’t cut into what I think we need to do for the farmers and ranchers.”
He said the nutrition issue has been bumped up to the level of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., House leaders and the White House.
Hoeven said that “in terms of ag, we have made good progress,” but he noted that in the overall bill there are “challenges” because McConnell wants to keep the cost to $1 trillion while the Democrats want to spend much more money.
“It’s a three-way negotiation” among the Senate, House and the White House, he noted. ❖