Farm, anti-hunger groups try to squeeze into $1-trillion pandemic bill

“Everything’s on the table” as Congress sets to work on a new coronavirus relief bill, and most of it will end up in the wastebasket, said Senate Finance chairman Chuck Grassley. Farm groups are pressing for billions of dollars in aid to offset low commodity prices and anti-hunger activists say a temporary increase in SNAP benefits would reduce hunger and stimulate the economy.

The package could be the last coronavirus legislation to clear Congress before the fall elections. Congress usually recesses during August, so there is an informal goal to complete work on the bill in the next two weeks.

“I couldn’t tell you what the thought is among the 100 senators of what ought to be included … And probably 90 percent of the ideas won’t get into it,” Grassley told reporters in Iowa on Friday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has set a $1-trillion total for the bill and insists it include a liability shield for businesses against Covid-19 lawsuits, he said.

Wisconsin hog farmer Howard Roth, president of the National Pork Producers Council, scheduled a news conference for Monday to make the case for federal payments to hog and poultry producers who had to cull animals because of coronavirus slowdowns at slaughter plants. The Democratic-controlled House passed a bill in May that makes livestock “depopulation” eligible for USDA assistance, and doubles the $16 billion now earmarked for cash payments to farmers and ranchers for pandemic-related losses.

The pandemic could knock $69,000 off of this year’s revenue for an average-sized Midwestern grain farm, meaning the farm would operate at a loss despite the ongoing coronavirus payments and likely payments from traditional crop subsidies, according to an estimate by six university economists. “Much of 2020 income is dependent on federal aid,” they wrote at farmdoc Daily. “More worrisome is 2021, which likely will have lower levels of federal aid.”

Besides the agricultural aid, the House bill calls for a 15-percent increase in SNAP benefits during the pandemic and would block two Trump regulations that would end food stamps for an estimated 3.1 million people. Groups such as the Children’s Defense Fund planned a “rolling rally,” based on time zones across the country, of phone calls to lawmakers in support of the increase on Monday.

The ethanol industry also wanted to be included in the new coronavirus bill. It says the decline in gasoline consumption during the pandemic reduced industry revenue by $3.4 billion. One analyst said the reduction in net revenues would be much smaller than the gross revenue figure and the loss in profits smaller still. Ethanol makers say the oil industry has received aid, through federal purchases for the petroleum reserve, so it deserves consideration too.