On Wednesday, the Senate leadership announced a bipartisan deal on a new comprehensive aid package responding to the expanding COVID-19 pandemic. The Senate package, which includes $14 billion for the agriculture secretary to pay out as necessary and $9.5 billion in emergency funding, is part of the third emergency relief bill considered by Congress and comes after several failed attempts by the Senate to advance a package on Sunday and Monday after resistance from Democrats.
A Senate vote was scheduled for later in the day Wednesday, with the House expected to follow suit shortly thereafter. However, concerns over unemployment insurance posed a last minute hurdle from Senate Democrats and a handful of Senate Republicans.
As part of the funding, $14 billion will be provided to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC) to help agriculture, as well as a separate appropriation of $9.5 billion for livestock and specialty crops.
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 appropriations subcommittee chairman John Hoeven (R., N.D.) had pushed for a $30 billion CCC replenishment for this fiscal year, a $20 billion increase and for authority for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use the CCC to make payments to livestock producers. In a March 23 letter to congressional leaders, 48 agricultural groups called on Congress to expand USDA’s borrowing authority. Some estimates called for as much as $50 billion in additional authority.
“Farmers, ranchers and the supply chain that support them will not let Americans down during this unprecedented crisis, and they are asking the same of you. Millions of producers will need help with cash flow, given the rapid and unanticipated decline in commodity prices, the likely closures of ethanol processing plants, the effective elimination of direct-to-consumer sales and decline in full-service restaurant and school meal demand,” the letter said.
National Pork Producers Council president Howard "A.V." Roth, a pork producer from Wauzeka, Wis., said the pork industry has already suffered losses due to COVID-19-related concerns.
“These new financial setbacks come on the heels of two very difficult years during which pork was at the tip of the trade retaliation spear. We are pleased that the stimulus package includes funding for much-needed relief to livestock farmers, and we recognize a vote is pending. We look forward to working with Congress and the Administration to make sure that all pork producers can access this critically important lifeline as we remain committed to keeping food on American tables," Roth said in a statement.
Jim Mulhern, president and chief executive officer of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), the largest organization of U.S. dairy farmers, said it was grateful for bipartisan work by Congress.
“We commend the bipartisan Senate negotiations that produced this outcome. We especially wish to thank Sens. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) for ensuring that dairy farmers will receive significant support,” Mulhern said. “Their work greatly improved this bill. We look forward to its passage.”
NMPF said it is also grateful to House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) for putting forward multiple dairy provisions in the House that will be helpful as the coronavirus-driven economic situation evolves and to Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson (R., Wis.) for his ongoing advocacy and work during this challenging process.
NMPF commended Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue for his department’s proactive, ongoing work to help agriculture manage the impacts of COVID-19. “Secretary Perdue and his team have worked tirelessly to assist dairy and all of agriculture as we deal with the challenges of this pandemic by taking actions across the scope of the agency to provide flexibility and assistance. We are very thankful for their collaboration,” Mulhern said.
In a statement, National Farmers Union President Rob Larew said rural hospitals have historically been overlooked and underfunded, leaving most without the equipment or personnel they need to handle an onslaught of critically ill patients. “This is particularly concerning as rural citizens are, on average, older and more likely to have other health conditions, making them more vulnerable to the virus,” Larew said.
In a background call for media by GOP Finance Committee staff, the bill includes some relief for rural hospitals to keep cash flow and payroll going and encouraging more telehealth use to prevent people aren’t coming in the doors as much.