Inside D.C.

CCC money survives CR wrangle

Congress has 535 members, give or take, all wearing blinders.  Lawmakers at best are able to focus on a single issue at a time. During a “normal” election year, focus is on issues that support reelection for the entire House, one-third of the Senate and this go-round, the occupant of the White.  

No one denies 2020 is anything but normal.  The U.S. and much of the world continue to be savaged by COVID 19, the U.S. has sadly lost 200,000 citizens, the economy reels from a COVID gut punch and trade wars continue, yet lawmakers, rather than shifting focus to the greater good, continue to dither over how best to polish their party’s – and their personal – images.  Members of Congress like to tell reporters, “We can walk and chew gum at the same time.”  It’s time to demonstrate that talent.

For the last 10 days, agriculture endured the distinction of being the latest congressional/White House political ping pong ball.  Ag has been well treated in three previous multi-trillion-dollar congressional COVID economic stimulus packages, but the political tug of war that is the slog to a “phase four” stimulus package left ag in limbo.  

As USDA announced the beginning of its second Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP2) last week, producer groups worried publicly USDA could run out of money before commitments are met.  Negotiations on a fourth COVID package languish, even as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D, CA) and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced they’d shook hands on an “informal, clean” continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government open at least until after the election, thereby avoiding in the run-up to November 3 what’s generally a bloody political battle with plenty of blame-assigning.

President Trump rained on the Mnuchin-Pelosi parade, insisting the CR carry $20 billion to replenish money spent by USDA out of the Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC) emergency coffer.  The Democrats, in turn, demanded $8 billion in expanded nutrition assistance and food stamp spending.  Both sides dug in.

The Democrats threw the first big rocks.  Capitol Hill Democrats, including House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D, MN), facing a tough reelection fight, and Senate ag panel ranking member Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D, MI) have long contended USDA enjoys too much leeway deciding who gets assistance and how much they get. Peterson says USDA is setting policy outside 2018 Farm Bill parameters; Stabenow contends USDA needs adult supervision to ensure CCC aid is not politicized, all commodities in need are addressed, and last week unveiled a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report she requested which contends USDA aid is regionally lopsided – favors the South – and disproportionately benefits big farms over small. 

When Pelosi formally walked away from the deal; some Senate GOPers called the move the equivalent of telling “farmers to drop dead.”  She responded Trump is using federal aid monies, including the CCC checkbook, as a “political slush fund” to keep his rural base happy in an election year.  This exchange was exactly what both parties hoped to avoid pre-election.

The rhetoric and the issue of CCC funding versus food aid ping-ponged back and forth between the chambers, one day part of the CR package, the next day not.  Finally, this week, the CCC’s $20 billion and the Democrat’s $8 billion in food help made the final cut; the package was approved by the House on a lopsided vote and will be easily blessed by the Senate.  CFAP2 monies will flow into 2021.  Oh, and the CR expires December 11, comfortably post-election. 

All eyes now turn to a phase four COVID stimulus package and both parties – from the top down – are under intense pressure to produce a deal their members can campaign on when they go home. Neither party can afford to go into November 3 without extending federal COVID assistance.   

Congress has so far ponied up nearly $4 trillion in three servings, including the $2.5-trillion CARES Act. The Federal Reserve has provided $2.3 trillion through asset purchases, liquidity measures and emergency lending programs, and could more than double that assistance.

The House passed a $3.4-trillion HEROES Act in May; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R, KY) dismissed it as too expensive and too laden with unrelated policy gambits.  McConnell said he’d spend another $1 trillion, but any bill must carry business liability protection language. Pelosi offered a $2.2-trillion package, while a bipartisan “Problem Solvers Caucus” unveiled a $1.5-trillion “skinny” stimulus effort, one that carries $25 billion for agriculture.  No Republican takers for either effort. 

Pelosi is getting yanked to get a bipartisan deal, to pass the HEROES Act a second time or simply get a new package through the House to publicly “message” the Democrats at least did something.  Publicly, her team says they want a deal with the White House.  Pelosi’s latest offer, out this week, carries a $2.4-trillion price tag, a move the GOP called a “political stunt.”  The bill is said to carry airline and restaurant industry money, an extension of federal unemployment assistance, aid to state and local governments which have lost tax revenue, another round of $1,200 federal direct payments to most citizens, aid for schools and money for COVID vaccine development.

The House-approved HEROES Act carried $33 billion in agriculture help, plus $35 billion in food and food stamp aid.  No word on whether Pelosi’s latest offer includes more money for agriculture. 

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