Cart? Horse? COVID Aid?

Inside D.C.

Cart? Horse? COVID Aid?

From its early collective sigh of relief it had dodged the COVID 19 bullet – “food won’t give you the coronavirus” – to its current status as a major media target over shuttered meat processing plants, agriculture finds itself playing catch-up when it comes to state and federal “assistance” and how it will run its affairs going into the “new normal.”

A “pandemic” is universal in who, where and what it hits.  It’s the most democratic of disasters; it does not discriminate.  There should have been a “what-if” worst-case scenario plan on the shelf at USDA.   Like animal disease outbreak contingencies, the plan would outline actions to be taken when the first U.S. case of a pandemic disease is reported.  It would detail how state and federal authorities would, with broad industry and corporate cooperation, implement a federal producer/production/processing protection plan.  

That didn’t happen.  Instead, industry crossed its collective fingers things wouldn’t get too bad, while Congress and the White House competed to see who could throw more federal dollars at more of the economy the quickest.  Another federal bailout bill is coming and this one will again carry a multi-trillion-dollar price tag.  No joke, there’s a passel of bipartisan House members demanding another $50 billion for ag with no caps or payment limits on per-producer assistance.     

Only now does it occur to some on Capitol Hill that adult supervision over how all that money is being/will be spent is a good idea.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D, CA) created a new select committee to watch how the bailout money is spent, and is one way to hold President Trump’s feet to the fire on spending during the runup to the November election.

For instance, most of the newest $16 billion in “aid” USDA will dispense – part of a total $24.5 billion – will be direct payments, not loans, and shouldn’t be confused with Marketing Facilitation Program (MPF) direct payments, crop/risk insurance payouts and other Farm Bill program payments. 

House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D, MN), a corporate accountant in his previous life, says with this next pot of federal money, Congress won’t make the same mistake as earlier programs. Regarding the most recent $2.3-trillion economic “stimulus” package, Peterson isn’t sanguine about simply giving USDA more dollars to spend. 

“What’s happening here is that the CCC and appropriators have become the Farm Bill…they’re doing policy and they’re not experts in farm policy,” Peterson said. 

He also wants a definite plan ahead of the next disaster.  The Minnesota lawmaker wants the department to use some of the new CCC money to develop a plan “that’s ready to go when we hit the next crisis,” and he pledges another COVID 19-like national emergency won’t wrack agriculture again.  “I can tell you as chairman of the ag committee that this is not going to happen again on my watch,” Peterson said.   

While he agrees more federal producer assistance is needed – he’s willing to back $68 billion in total CCC authority and says Pelosi is on board – he won’t allow USDA to simply shovel money out the door on its own terms.  

“I’m not giving the CCC or the Secretary any more money unless we have a say about how it’s going to be spent,” said Peterson this week.  Peterson will attach several strings to any new money, including requiring the department to get the formal blessing of House and Senate ag committee chairs and ranking members on how the money will be distributed and to whom.

Peterson is also getting hands-on when it comes to packing plant closures.  When COVID 19 took hold in rural America, meat processing plant workers tested positive, a lot got sick, too many died.  The inevitable temporary plant closings began.  Some farmers and ranchers with no place to send their animals began depopulation, many on farm.  Some meat companies said silly things in the press and consumers started to panic.

Peterson wants local, state and federal governments to sit down with industry, union and corporate reps to best sort out how to reopen shuttered plants while protecting workers, their families and communities.  He wants to see more testing, more personal protective equipment (PPE) and social distancing, not just for workers, but for federal meat inspectors.  To rebuild employee confidence may mean slower line speeds and lower output.  Peterson acknowledges that.    

And because there aren’t enough economic issues to haggle over, state and federal lawmakers from big cattle, pork and poultry states are talking about the federal government paying farmers and ranchers for animals they kill because they can’t ship them to processing.  USDA says such reparations occur only when animals, not humans, are sick. 

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