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Senate appropriator eyes more COVID-19 relief for agriculture

John Hoeven would boost CCC borrowing authority

Senate Agriculture Appropriations Chairman John Hoeven calls the $19 billion relief package announced by the Agriculture Department a good start.
Senate Agriculture Appropriations Chairman John Hoeven calls the $19 billion relief package announced by the Agriculture Department a good start. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The chairman of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations panel said Monday he will focus on giving the Agriculture Department $20 billion in additional borrowing authority to aid farmers and ranchers when Congress returns.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., called the $19 billion relief package Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced on April 17 a good start but said the livestock and hog industries are particularly hard hit as meatpacking and processing plants temporarily close or slow down operations. Hundreds of employees have tested positive for COVID-19. The package announced by Perdue would provide $16 billion in direct payments to eligible agricultural producers.

“I would like us to increase that CCC cap from $30 billion to $50 billion,” Hoeven said, referring to the Commodity Credit Corporation that the Agriculture Department uses to fund price and revenue support programs. The department is using some funds from the CCC for the relief package and tapped it in 2018 and 2019 for nearly $23 billion in trade aid payments to farmers and ranchers adversely affected by retaliatory tariffs on U.S. agriculture products.

Over the weekend, the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced it would set up a coordinating center to help find alternative markets for cattle and hog producers left with market-ready animals because of packing plant closures. The agency also raised the possibility of euthanasia of animals that cannot be sold.   

But Hoeven told the North American Agricultural Journalists in a Zoom meeting that more money is needed. He had pushed for provisions to raise the Agriculture Department’s borrowing authority at the Treasury Department for the CCCC from $30 billion to $50 billion. The economic relief bill enacted March 27 provided $9.6 billion specifically for aid to agriculture and $14 billion to replenish the CCC in July.

He also said he might support changes to the current payment limits attached to the $16 billion in direct payments, but said he probably would not go much beyond the $125,000 per commodity or $250,000 per farmer or agricultural entity. Livestock and dairy groups say that many of them would receive just $125,000 for raising animals, but be ineligible for additional money because they don’t raise crops.

Those groups have gotten the backing of a number of lawmakers. On Friday, more than 100 House members and nearly 30 senators sent bipartisan letters to Perdue and President Donald Trump calling for dropping the payment limits for COVID-19 related payments.

“I understand those letters about payment limits, but you’ve got to look at the whole scenario that’s been laid and how we address it,” Hoeven said, referring to the aid package.

Hoeven said the goal is to get the direct payment money out as quickly as possible and to distribute it to as many sectors of agriculture as are being squeezed financially by the ripple effects of COVID-19 directives that have closed restaurants and farmers markets and reduced demand for food service meals.    

He said there’s no timetable for another economic relief package, adding that Republicans want to see how several aid bills signed into law in March and April are working before they will consider more relief legislation.

“Let’s make sure we’re using  those dollars to  meet the need as effectively as possible,” Hoeven said. “I think we would certainly stay in session, obviously going into the August recess, and potentially even  beyond that, I would think, depending on how this coronavirus fight plays out.”  

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