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Nearly $1 trillion in previously authorized relief not spent as more money set to go out.

Jacqui Fatka, Policy editor

March 4, 2021

3 Min Read
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Over the last year, Congress has come together five times to pass massive, bipartisan bills totaling roughly $4 trillion in relief measures to help American families and businesses weather the pandemic. But as Democrats assumed control of the White House and tightened margins in Congress, their promises for unity are nowhere to be found in its recent relief package and first major priority.

Just as the current administration looks to evaluate policies of the past administration in distributing the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program payments, isn’t it time all of Congress looks at where funds from the previous COVID packages are using allocated money before sending out more?

Related: Vilsack promises timely review of CFAP

One of Republicans’ biggest concerns with the latest COVID package is the lack of Republican input and accountability on the nearly $1 trillion in funds that haven’t been spent in previous packages. The USDA has only obligated 62% of the COVID relief monies provided by Congress to date.

In the House Agriculture Committee markup of COVID relief provisions, amendments were voted down that were intended to limit spending additional funds until at least 80% of previously allocated funds.

Related: House Ag Committee starts out with partisanship

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, joined her colleagues Sens. Rick Scott, R-Fla., and James Lankford, R-Okla., on the Senate floor to introduce a proposal that would require full transparency and accounting of unspent funds from previous COVID-19 relief packages.

“Bottom line: we need transparency and to know what has and has not been spent so far,” Ernst says. “Until we have those details, we should not continue throwing money to Washington bureaucrats, and we certainly should not support this partisan, $1.9 trillion dollar package that includes many items that are completely unrelated to COVID-19.”

The reconciliation process, which the relief package currently is being shepherded through, requires only a simple majority in the House and Senate, not the normal 60-vote threshold in the Senate. Although Republicans were brought in early to discuss components of President Joe Biden’s COVID relief plan, what we’ve seen in recent weeks sets a poor precedent on accountability and bipartisanship.

Related: What’s in House’s COVID relief bill for agriculture?

“The proposals in the nearly $2 trillion package include sweeping policy changes that deserve thorough, bipartisan scrutiny at the committee level,” according to an opinion piece penned by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee. 

Crapo notes according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, only about 1% of the entire package goes toward COVID vaccines, and 5% is truly focused on public health needs surrounding the pandemic. More than 15% of the package – about $300 billion – is spent on long-standing policy priorities that are not directly related to the current crisis.

“The coronavirus pandemic has exacted a terrible toll on America, and another relief package may be appropriate. However, there are strong disagreements on the scope and content of the current relief package, which should be deliberated and debated through regular committee order,” writes Crapo. “We have the opportunity to work together to get this right. That is what we should be doing, especially right now.”

We could all use some accountability and more COVID relief that could find support across party lines. Just like its proper for the newly approved Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to evaluate funds utilized in CFAP and the Farmers to Families Food Box program, it’s also right for taxpayers to know where and how funds under previous COVID relief measures have been spent and for what priorities.

Because as Ernst says, “This isn’t monopoly money. This is real money. We have a moral obligation to future generations to spend responsibly.”

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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