Congressional Leaders Debate Farm Aid Ahead of Spending Vote

September 22, 2020
In The News

Congressional leaders on Tuesday were discussing whether to restore farm-aid funds and food assistance to a spending bill needed to prevent a partial government shutdown next month, Democratic aides said.

House Democrats had planned to bring the bill, which would fund the government through Dec. 11, up for a vote later Tuesday. But they paused while leaders hashed out whether to make changes that would likely end the brewing partisan battle over the funds. Lawmakers have little time for a protracted clash over the spending legislation, since the government’s current funding expires next Thursday.

“We are committed to making sure we fund the government,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D., N.Y.) told reporters Tuesday, saying the spending bill would come up for a vote in the next day or two.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) was discussing the spending bill with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a Democratic aide said Tuesday. Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Mnuchin had agreed earlier this month to pass a spending bill devoid of any contentious measures to avoid a partial government shutdown.

Senate Republicans said Tuesday that the absence of farm-aid funds was a blow to farmers.

“It basically is a message to farm country to drop dead,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said Tuesday.

At issue is whether to include $21 billion sought by the White House for the Commodity Credit Corp., or CCC, a Depression-era program designed to stabilize farm incomes that permits borrowing as much as $30 billion from the Treasury to finance its activities.

President Trump has tapped the program to finance both trade relief and coronavirus-related aid for farmers, a second round of which he announced at a campaign rally in Wisconsin last week. But the program has traditionally been used to send out payments established under bipartisan farm bills, some of which the Agriculture Department said could be subject to delays as soon as October.

“This is a situation where it’s desperately needed,” Rep. Glenn Thompson (R., Pa.), a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said of replenishing the CCC program.

Many Democrats object to giving what they view as a blank check to Mr. Trump to use for political purposes, but are also eager to avoid a government shutdown during a pandemic.

Lawmakers on Friday had been coalescing around pairing a CCC infusion with an extension, sought by Democrats, of a program expiring at month’s end that allows families of school-age children to buy groceries to replace the free or reduced-price meals they would have received at school. But the spending bill released Monday by House Democrats left out both.

“We thought we had a deal the other day, but they took it out in the House,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R., Ala.) told reporters Monday. Republicans said Democratic leaders had reneged on a bipartisan agreement reached Friday, while Democrats said no final deal had been reached.

“We’re talking now,” Mr. Shelby said Tuesday. Aides said the discussions involved extending some other nutrition programs as well.

Democrats and Republicans diverged this week in their assessment of whether the CCC program would need to be shored up early. The program’s annual replenishment typically takes place in November or December after the CCC submits financial forms and is audited, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The Agriculture Department said that Covid-19 relief payments pledged by the Trump administration had left the program with only about $2 billion, and that it would be forced to prioritize which farm-bill payments could be made starting in October.

Democrats said that the Agriculture Department chose to swiftly transfer Covid-19 relief funds out of CCC and into Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s office even before beginning to take applications and without factoring in coming farm-bill payments. The Agriculture Department said it had disbursed previous Covid-19 relief payments from Mr. Perdue’s office and had to handle the recently announced relief funds the same way, resulting in a drawdown of the CCC.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said Monday that Congress had already provided the Agriculture Department enough funding for it to send out October payments, and that it would be reimbursed in November.

“If there are additional needs, the [agriculture] secretary has tremendous flexibility to transfer unspent funds to fully fund farm-bill programs,” Ms. Stabenow said.

The Farm Bureau estimated last week that once early October payments have been sent, the CCC program could be exhausted by November.