March Policy Update

March, 2021

By Patty Lovera, Policy Director

Congress has started to get down to business, with most committee rosters lined up, the impeachment trial completed and many new Cabinet officials confirmed. One of those confirmation votes was for Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, who was easily approved by the Senate. This is his second time running USDA, he served as secretary for eight years under President Obama. In his initial weeks on the job, Secretary Vilsack has been making the rounds of media interviews and conferences to talk about his priority issues – climate change, racial equity and responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now that the top job is filled, there will be more announcements about other political appointees at the agency. So far, a deputy undersecretary of marketing and regulatory programs (which is the division containing the National Organic Program) has been named and is on the job, as well as a new Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights and Administrator of the Farm Services Agency.

Economic Stimulus and Pandemic Response

Today, the House is expected to pass the latest measure to respond to the pandemic, sending the bill to President to sign. The American Rescue Plan, is a massive $1.9 billion package that will fund a long list of programs including direct $1400 payments to eligible individuals, expanded unemployment payments, aid for state and local government, and support for vaccinations, health care, education and more.

For agriculture, this bill does not include new money for direct payments to farms or processors impacted by the pandemic. But it does include a 15 percent increase for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, $4 billion in commodity purchases for food banks and funding to increase the resilience of the food supply chain, including grants for purchasing personal protective equipment, test kits, and other measures for food chain workers and infrastructure investments for food processors, farmers markets, food banks, and producers to build resiliency in the food supply. The bill also contains $4 billion for debt relief for farmers of color and additional funding for USDA to create a racial equity commission and address longstanding discrimination in the administration of USDA programs.

Over at USDA, there are still questions about how the funding for agriculture from the last pandemic response law will be spent. In late December, Congress passed a new law to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic that authorized $13 billion for responding to the impacts of the pandemic on agriculture, as well as funding for SNAP and other nutrition programs. The law instructs the USDA to do several different things with the agricultural funding, including purchasing commodities and providing direct payments to farmers and processors that have been impacted by disruptions caused by the pandemic. In his last week in office, former Agriculture Secretary Perdue announced that USDA would spend over a billion dollars to provide supplemental payments to certain producers who had already received payments through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program in 2020 for specific categories like hog producers and several new categories of crops, including turf grass and pullets, and contract livestock producers who were made eligible in the new law passed in December. Just a few days after President Biden was inaugurated, the USDA announced that it was pausing the payments so the program could be reviewed. We are still waiting for a decision from USDA about what will happen next with these payment programs, and members of Congress are starting to pressure the agency for a decision. At some point soon, the status of those pending payments should be clarified, and the USDA will release the rules for a new round of direct payments using the funding in the law passed in December.

Paycheck Protection Program: The law passed in December also provided additional funding for small business assistance programs, including the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and Paycheck Protection Program, including second loans under PPP. To be eligible for a second loan, a business has to have less than 300 employees and also be able to show that it suffered a 25 percent loss in revenue for at least one quarter of 2020 (as compared to 2019.) The deadline for applying for a PPP loan is March 31, but if you are interested you should contact your bank as soon as possible to make sure there is still funding available.

Climate Policy

One of the big topics for Congress and USDA this year is climate change. The House Agriculture Committee dedicated its first official hearing of the year to the topic, with a long session that covered how climate change is impacting farmers and possible policy mechanisms to make agriculture part of the effort to fight climate change. The key themes (made by both Democrats and Republicans) were that climate policy for agriculture should be based on voluntary programs and incentives, with lots of emphasis on soil health and conservation programs and discussion on the promise and pitfalls of programs that would pay farms for sequestering carbon. The Senate Agriculture Committee will have a hearing this Thursday at 10:15 eastern on climate change issues, where the chair of the committee, Senator Stabenow, will likely promote her Growing Climate Solutions Act, which would make USDA a technical service provider and certifier for carbon payment programs. You can watch the hearing on the committee website here.

What You Can Do

As we get finally get closer to spring, that means in DC it is time to talk about money. This is the time of year when Congress starts to put together the “appropriations” bills that set the spending levels for each federal agency, including USDA. We still need Congress to intervene to get USDA to restore the reimbursement levels for organic certification cost share through the next appropriations bill. You can help by asking your members of Congress to make sure that USDA restores the reimbursement level for organic certification cost-share.  You can take action here.

UPCOMING EVENTS:  Mark Your Calendars!

OFA “Virtual” Lobby Days

In 2021, instead of traveling to Washington, DC for an OFA lobby day, we will be coordinating a week of virtual lobby visits instead. Mark your calendars for the week of March 22nd, when OFA members will be working together to have online or phone meetings with their members of Congress.  You can register now and we’ll keep you in the loop about upcoming trainings and how to participate!  Open only to OFA members.