House votes to double coronavirus payments to agriculture

Senate Republicans will ignore the “unserious” $3-trillion coronavirus relief bill passed along party lines by the House in favor of steps such as liability shields for employers, said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The House bill included $16.5 billion for cash payments to farmers and ranchers, double the amount in the package now awaiting approval by the White House budget office.

The bill, passed on a 208-199 roll call on Friday, also calls for a temporary 15-percent increase in SNAP benefits and allots more than $4 billion for other public nutrition programs. It would waive work requirements for SNAP recipients and block the USDA from implementing three regulations that would narrow eligibility for food stamps.

“Now the House Democrats have presented our proposal to lead to negotiation,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a letter to Democratic colleagues over the weekend. Pelosi said Republicans were wrong in suggesting a “pause” in congressional action. After criticizing the House for an “unserious product,” McConnell called for increased testing for the coronavirus nationwide and “legal liability protections so that K-12 schools, universities, charities, and employers are not invaded by trial lawyers the instant they unlock their doors.”

The National Farmers Union and the National Corn Growers Association applauded passage of the latest coronavirus bill. “Of particular importance is an additional $16.5 billion in direct support to affected farmers, which should help prevent the closure of thousands of family-owned operations,” said NFU president Rob Larew.” We are similarly heartened by provisions that would strengthen farmer mental health resources, extend employer-sponsored health care coverage, expand nutrition assistance programs, and assist biofuel plants.

It may be several weeks before the Senate acts on coronavirus legislation, said three American Farm Bureau Federation economists. “Any action in the Senate will require bipartisan support. As a result, it is very likely that provisions in this bill could be changed or eliminated in the coming weeks,” they wrote.

The Trump administration has proposed $16 billion in cash payments, with livestock producers to get $9.6 billion of it, according to unofficial descriptions. Agriculture Undersecretary Bill Northey said the package awaits White House clearance, according to a posting on social media by a Red River Farm Network reporter. “We’re getting closer, I think … certainly, our desire is still to have sign-up at the end of May,” said Northey. “We’ll do some staff training next week.”

An additional $16.5 billion would be provided by the new House package to offset losses by producers due to the coronavirus. Payments would be calculated at 85 percent of losses as estimated by the USDA.

The House bill would require, for the first time, congressional approval of USDA spending from its Commodity Credit Corp., which serves as a multibillion-dollar bank for the department. It can spend up to $30 billion before asking Congress for additional funds. For decades, USDA has held sole control of outlays. The administration used the CCC, with its broad authority to support farm income and commodity prices, to fund $23 billion in trade war payments to producers for 2018 and 2019 output.

House Republicans have proposed raising the CCC spending limit to $68 billion. Texas Rep. Michael Conaway, the senior Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, faulted the House bill as “just too little” for agriculture but vastly inflated overall. Conaway voted against the bill.