The Senate advanced by a vote of 96-0 its Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security Act (CARES Act) in a vote late Wednesday night in the third tranche of assistance offered by Congress as it attempts to respond to the economic fallout from the coronavirus (COVID-19). For farmers, the final $2 trillion package includes some specific requests, such as additional lending authority to for the Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC) and livestock and disaster assistance.
The COVID-19 impact on agriculture includes a rapid and unanticipated decline in commodity prices, the likely closure of ethanol plants, the dramatic decline in full-service restaurant and school meal demand and the reduction in direct-to-consumer sales.
Ahead of the final deal, 48 agriculture groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, joined together in calling on Congress to expand the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s borrowing authority under the CCC. The agreement includes a $14 billion increase in USDA’s borrowing authority under the CCC, consistent with a long history of the CCC being tapped to responsibly support agriculture in times of crisis, and $9.5 billion to assist specialty crop producers, direct retail farmers and livestock operators.
“The aid to farmers in this package, including funding for the CCC and the Office of the Secretary, will allow USDA to begin crafting an appropriate relief program for agriculture,” American Farm Bureau president Zippy Duvall said.
The bill also includes direct payments to individuals ($1,200 per individual or $2,400 per married couple), $130 billion for hospitals, $150 billion for local and state governments and $300 billion in financial aid for small businesses. Additionally, it allocates funding for nutrition assistance programs, rural broadband and rural health resources.
Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) said in a statement, “The relief package will provide stability for our farmers and ensure the American people have a safe and stable food supply. Our bipartisan agreement includes targeted assistance to farmers who are experiencing severe financial losses during the pandemic, including fruit and vegetable growers, dairy farmers and local food producers.”
Senate Finance Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa.), said, “For days, I worked with my Democratic colleagues to craft key tax- and health-related provisions as well as the recovery checks and unemployment insurance. It’s a bipartisan product that, regrettably, was hijacked and delayed because of partisan politics, but the important thing is that it’s finally approved in the Senate. I urge the speaker of the House to immediately pass this critical relief for the American people, even if it means ending their week-long recess. The needless delays in the Senate have run out the clock. There’s no more time to waste."
The legislation includes S. 1089, the Restoring Access to Medication Act of 2019 and the Priority Zoonotic Animal Drug designation -- a zoonotic animal drug priority of Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.). Roberts’ zoonotic animal drug priority expedites Food & Drug Administration approval of animal drugs that treat zoonotic and vector-borne diseases, like the novel coronavirus, through a new designation.
“I’m glad to see two of my key priorities included in the coronavirus legislation. The Restoring Access to Medication Act of 2019 will make it easier to purchase medications through health savings accounts, which will help stop the spread of the coronavirus by keeping those who are experiencing mild symptoms out of the doctor’s office," Roberts said. “The Priority Zoonotic Animal Drug designation will help treat future zoonotic diseases, like the coronavirus, before they cause serious harm to humans.”
Stabenow said more is needed. “While this bill contains critical relief, I am deeply disappointed that including additional food assistance for children, families and seniors did not have bipartisan support. I will continue to fight to get families the help they need during this crisis,” she said.
In a statement, Stabenow outlined specifically what the CARES Act provides:
Relief for farmers and ranchers
- $9.5 billion dedicated disaster fund to help farmers who are experiencing financial losses from the coronavirus crisis, including targeted support for fruit and vegetable growers, dairy and livestock farmers and local food producers.
- $14 billion to fund the farm bill’s farm safety net through the CCC.
- Eligibility for farmers and agricultural and rural businesses to receive up to $10 million in small business interruption loans from eligible lenders, including Farm Credit institutions, through the Small Business Administration. Repayment forgiveness will be provided for funds used for payroll, rent or mortgage and utility bills.
- $3 million to increase capacity at USDA's Farm Service Agency to meet increased demand from farmers affected by the COVID-19 crisis.
Assistance for small towns and rural communities
- $1 billion available in guaranteed loans to help rural businesses weather the economic downturn.
- $100 billion to hospitals, health care providers and facilities, including those in rural areas.
- $25 million for telemedicine tools to help rural patients access medical care, no matter where they live.
- $100 million for high-speed internet expansion in small towns and rural communities.
- More than $70 million to help the U.S. Forest Service serve rural communities and reduce the spread of COVID-19 through personal protective equipment for first responders and cleaning of facilities.
Protections for consumers and the food supply
- $55 million for inspection and quarantine at U.S. borders to protect against invasive pests and animal disease.
- $33 million for overtime and temporary food safety inspectors to protect America’s food supply at meat processing plants.
- $45 million to ensure that quality produce and meat reaches grocery stores through increased support for the Agricultural Marketing Service.
- $1.5 million to expedite Environmental Protection Agency approvals of disinfectants needed to control the spread of COVID-19 .
Food access for families
- $15.8 billion to fund food assistance changes made in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
- $9 billion to fund child nutrition improvements made in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
- $450 million to provide food banks with additional resources for food and distribution.
- $100 million for food distribution in tribal communities to provide facility improvements, equipment upgrades and food purchases.