The Government Accountability Office, Congress's nonpartisan audit agency, has opened an investigation into the integrity of the USDA Market Facilitation Program payments.
“It’s clear that the Trump Administration’s trade assistance payments pick winners and losers rather than help the farmers who have been hit the hardest by this president’s trade policies,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. “This investigation will shed more light on what has been happening and bring accountability and fairness to a program that has spent billions of taxpayer dollars.”
In January, Stabenow requested a comprehensive GAO investigation of the trade assistance program. The investigation opened by the GAO will examine:
- Whether the model USDA used to distribute payments has accurately reflected trade damages felt by farmers;
- How higher payment limits have increased payments to large complex farm operations;
- Whether USDA is effectively preventing fraud, waste and abuse in the program.
The Trump administration announced the aid program in August 2018, according to The Hill. The Agriculture Department pledged $12 billion in aid in 2018 and an additional $14.5 billion in 2019.
One study found that between disaster aid, trade aid, insurance indemnities and the trade assistance, almost 40% of farm income was coming from some sort of aid.
In November, Stabenow released a report and sent a letter to the USDA detailing concerns that the Trump Administration distributed trade aid unevenly across the country, benefiting regions and farms that have experienced less trade damage. The administration has ignored suggested improvements. USDA defended the payments.
“While criticism is easy to come up with, we welcome constructive feedback from any member of Congress with recommendations as to how the program could be better administered,” a USDA spokesperson told The Hill.
USDA also defended the payments to foreign-owned companies like JBS USA, saying they support American ranchers, Politico reports.
Democrats aren't the only ones who have questioned the aid, The New York Times reports. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, joined Democratic colleagues Sen. Bob Menendez, N.J., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut, in asking Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to investigate JBS, which received $67 million in bailout funds.