Senate Ag Republicans Get Their Groove Back

Ag PolicySenate Ag Republicans Get Their Groove Back

Division N, Subtitle B Agriculture provides an interesting twist on “emergency” agricultural aid not seen during the Trump Administration. Along with the $11,187,500,000 provided to the “Office of the Secretary” of Agriculture are 175 lines of text detailing how he “shall” or “may” direct this pot of funding. This is in marked contrast from the CARES Act in March which sent Secretary Perdue’s office $9.5 billion to dole out with a mere 14 lines of text, four of which involved the bill stating the funds were an “emergency” and not subject to annual spending caps. And the HEALS Act proposed by Senate Republicans in July continued this pattern, proposing $20 billion while leaving distribution of the funds up to the discretion of the Secretary. In contrast the House Democrats’ proposed HEROES Act included 766 lines of text in its agricultural safety net portion.

This is a pattern seen for the last four years on not just COVID aid, but natural disaster supplementals, as well as the two rounds of “trade aid” the Secretary doled out to compensate farmers for losses due to the Trump Administration’s trade war.

You don’t have to dig deep to discover why Senate Republicans are suddenly interested in making Congressional direction great again. As Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS), who is retiring, was quoted in Agri-pulse:

“You’ve got Sonny saying adios, and you’ve got Tom coming in. I don’t want to give this baby to the secretary to run,” said Roberts, referring to outgoing Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to replace him, Tom Vilsack. “We should be making those decisions, not (the secretary),” Roberts said.

Besides a clear case of partisan revisionist history with respect to Congressional spending authority, the specificity provided gives a window into the power dynamics – or lobbying prowess – of various agricultural special interests. For the history of supplementals is that growers of crops that the Secretary “shall” support often receive the most, while those who “may” seldom see much if any cash. Here’s a list of this year’s winners and losers in the Secretary’s subsidy pool.

 The Shalls

  • $20 an acre in supplemental payments for row crop producers participating in CFAP
  • Livestock and poultry producers who euthanized their livestock because of slaughterhouse disruptions
  • Supplemental payments to livestock producers compensated under CFAP
  • Up to $1 billion for contract growers of livestock or poultry (had been excluded in previous rounds of funding)
  • At least $20 million to be used to improve and maintain animal disease prevention and response capacity
  • Income subsidies for cotton textile mills
  • Payments to producers that previously had their CFAP payments reduced to adhere to payment limits in the program.
  • $1.5 billion to purchase food and agricultural products, including seafood, dairy, fresh produce, and meat products for distribution to people in need
    • This pot shall also provide grants and loans to small or midsized food processors and distributors including farmers markets, seafood processing facilities, or other organizations

The Mays (maybe nots)

  • Farmers selling specialty crops at premium prices because of local market, varietal, certified organic, or other niche opportunities (have been compensated at lower wholesale prices in CFAP)
  • Producers of biofuels – corn and cellulosic based ethanol as well as biodiesel
  • Dairy processors, packagers, or merchandisers seeking recourse loans
  • Up to $200 million for timber harvesters or haulers
  • Any producer seeking assistance but who’s crop is not specifically mentioned in the text

Perhaps this renewed interest in exercising the power of the purse can be the start of something good. Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate should start by returning to crafting farm policy via farm bills instead of deferring to the current or any future Secretary of Agriculture. Legislating is their job, after all, maybe they just need to relearn how to do it. Whatever the reason for the return, we welcome it.

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