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Congress has ‘blind spots’ for rural America

iStock rearview mirror iStock1023700990.jpg
President Biden holds meetings with Congressional Democrats as they try to look for ways to pass infrastructure and administration priorities.

The clock is ticking, and it does not appear we have many more answers today than we did several weeks ago on major Congressional proposals that could result in trillions of new spending. Just days before a first promised vote for Sept. 27 on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, we also don’t have any new understanding on the timeline of passage for the reconciliation package including tax changes and climate investments as well as the looming threat of a government shutdown and our credit worthiness if a debt ceiling vote doesn’t occur before mid-October.

On Thursday morning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced a tentative revenue deal they said would pay for President Biden's major spending agenda under the $3.5 trillion reconciliation. However, at press time we still don’t know details about the agreement.

This follows up on meetings Biden called were “productive and candid” with congressional Democrats Wednesday afternoon on finding a “pathway forward for lowering costs for hardworking people and ensuring that our economic growth strategy is based on investing in families, not more giveaways to big corporations and the wealthiest taxpayers,” according to a readout of the meeting.

One of the crucial swing votes on any Democrat plan is Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who previously has voiced concerns with the $3.5 trillion price tag and taxes proposed to pay for it.

“It was a very good meeting, it was a very constructive meeting,” Manchin told NBC News. “The president was very engaged and involved, and I think everybody could say what they felt, and everybody wants to work together if they can and find a path forward.”

But on Thurdsay Manchin also didn't know what was on the "menu of options" of revenue raisers for how to pay for the agenda. 

Infrastructure and reconciliation 'tied at hip'

This week while speaking at several different events virtually, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack reiterated those in agriculture know the importance of infrastructure and the need for fixing and upgrading ports and waterways, roads and bridges and expanding rural broadband access.

But he drew a hard line in the sand that Congress can’t get the bipartisan infrastructure bill without also passing the $3.5 trillion package that Republicans have coined the “tax and spend” plan from Democrats. Vilsack claimed the two bills are “tied at the hip” when he spoke to the Kansas City Agribusiness Council’s Ag Outlook on Sept. 20.

While speaking at the National Association of State Agriculture Departments annual meeting on Sept. 22, he shared that whether members of Congress are Democrat or Republican, progressive or moderate or conservative, that at the end of the day these issues are not Republican or Democratic Party issues. “Everybody in the country understands the importance of necessity of infrastructure,” Vilsack says.

“I think every one of us knows what the solution is here,” Vilsack told the ag state commissioners. “We just have to get to yes.”

Blind spots 

But in getting to that yes, how much will truly help rural America?

Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., shares many changes need to be made to the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package in order to make it palatable for rural America. As it currently stands, the over $90 billion in new ag spending may not have any money devoted to production or livestock agriculture.

Johnson says in general, urban areas are generally represented by more Democrat members whereas rural areas traditionally have Republican representatives. This matters when you have a Democrat-controlled chamber with the bills being written with exclusively Democrat members’ input.

“That means so often there are blind spots related to rural challenges,” Johnson says. “And I think you really see that with the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package.”

Johnson says it’s pretty “shocking” that there isn’t anything specific for the American farmer or rancher in the current proposal, although some of the anticipated $28 billion for conservation funding could find its way into farmers’ pocketbooks.

The farmer needs to know this reconciliation path is going to be messy. He adds, frankly a lot of changes are needed to happen to the reconciliation package for it to be good for the U.S. farmer.

“Right now, the reconciliation package contains almost no good news for the American farmer and a fair amount of potentially bad news,” he says. “We've got our work cut out for us, and we just need to keep working on it.”

According to a recent blog about everything you wanted to know about budget reconciliation at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, NSAC shares that funding amounts differ between the House version of an estimated $89 billion and the Senate Agriculture Committee’s number of $135 billion.

“How the actual legislative process moves forward at this point seems to be anyone’s guess. At a minimum, over the coming weeks, the House Budget Committee is expected to stitch together the recommendations reported out by all 13 House authorizing committees that provided instructions in the concurrent budget resolution, into one large $3.5 trillion omnibus,” NSAC says.

However, in the Senate, none of the 12 committees with reconciliation directions have publicly reported out bills. NSAC writes it’s likely at some point the Senate will unveil text, either in the form of individual committee bills or one large $3.5 trillion omnibus, and that the Senate is working very closely with the budget committee as they stitch together the omnibus to make certain that everything in the final bill can pass the rules required by the Senate parliamentarian.

But that could drag on if the upper price tag needs to drop or members try to get additional support by adding specific provisions.

Earlier this week, House Democrats advanced a continuing resolution bill that suspends the debt limit until December 2022 and includes ag disaster aid. Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke on the Senate floor Thursday criticizing the approach of using a “party-line fast-track process to ram this through the Senate on their own. That’s why Republicans will not help this unified Democratic government with its basic duty to raise the debt ceiling.”

So, check your rearview mirrors. We may see several unforeseen changes rushing on us soon.  

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