Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.
COVID-19 Prompts Upward Revision to USDA Food Price Forecasts
The impact of the COVID-19 situation continues to show in various areas, now showing in food prices. USDA’s monthly update to the food price forecasts typically does not see a lot of adjustments.
The April rate of inflation for food at home (grocery store) prices increased 2.7% from March and were up 4.1% from April 2019. “Food-at-home prices had a month-to-month rate of inflation higher than any month since 1990, while food-away-from-home prices were nearly flat,” USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) said. “For the past several years, inflation for food-at-home prices had been slower than for food-away-from-home prices; however, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have ended that trend.”
The situation also prompted an upward revision to the grocery store (food at home) price forecast, upping that to a rise of 2% to 3% vs 0.5% to 1.5% the agency saw in their month-ago update. And overall food prices are now seen rising 2% to 3% as well, up from 1.5% to 2.5% previously.
Within the grocery store prices, only three areas were not revised upward from the month-ago marks.
House Democrats Raise Questions with USDA’s Perdue
Three House Agriculture subcommittee chairmen sent USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue questions about how $1.2 billion in contracts for the new Farmer to Families Food Box program were awarded.
The lawmakers also sought answers on how the department will determine if contracts are fulfilled and what actions it will take against an awardee not meeting contract requirements.
The effort it part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) where USDA said it would use $3 billion for the effort.
Asking the questions were Reps. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, Jim Costa, D-Calif., and Stacey Plaskett, D-U.S.V.I.
Washington Insider: Shape of Next Coronavirus Bill
Bloomberg is reporting this week that the contents of the next coronavirus relief package will hinge on a central question of "whether the goal should be to provide another tourniquet for the economy or a crutch to help return it to normal.”
House Democrats focused their claim for the upcoming negotiations by passing a $3 trillion relief package. Republican leadership and the White House are taking a more cautious approach, calling for some time to measure the impact of previous relief bills and determine what else is needed to get the economy on track.
The tension over whether the next package should aim to provide more aid or stimulate a reopening economy is evident in two of the key areas of disagreement: whether unemployment benefits and further federal aid to states should be extended in the next bill, which could rival or exceed the size of the third law, known as the CARES Act.
“Republicans know CARES was not the end of the congressional response but they clearly don’t feel the same urgency as their blue state counterparts,” said Liam Donovan, a principal at Bracewell LLP in Washington. “You might think of this ongoing pause as walking away from the legislative bazaar â?? blithely dismissing what they deem a liberal wish list, winding down the clock, and lowering the price on the inevitable next phase.”
Aides on both sides of the aisle expect talks to gain steam in June. By that time, the effectiveness of the Federal Reserve’s new emergency powers and the return to operations of some nonessential businesses could weigh heavily on the next steps.
There appears to be bipartisan momentum behind certain provisions in the House-passed response bill, including tweaking the employee retention credit to make it more usable, providing further financial assistance through the tax code to help businesses cover fixed costs during shelter-in-place orders and loosening IRS rules on deductions related to loans issued under the Paycheck Protection Program. Less clear is whether Republicans would agree to another round of direct payments to Americans, something they viewed as an emergency bridge to increased unemployment benefits.
Aides agree that the parties are in a ‘pre-negotiation’ phase, trying to build consensus within their own ranks.
A $600 weekly increase in unemployment insurance, set to expire at the end of July, will be critical to those talks. It is popular among Democrats but Republicans see it as disruptive to the labor market in re-opening states.
Two influential Senate Finance Committee members have launched opening bids in an effort to reach compromise.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, is calling for a $450 weekly “back-to-work bonus” for people who can go back to work before the end of July. The proposal, which he intends to include in the next bill, would use funding from the increased unemployment benefit to pay for the bonus, but keep that beefed up insurance in place for those who don’t have a job to return to.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is drafting a proposal that would extend the benefit by tying it to the unemployment rate. The idea would be to sidestep the politics of extending the subsidy by automating it.
“If you can tie things to economic indicators that can be helpful, it just has to be done right,” a Senate Republican staffer told Bloomberg when asked about Wyden’s idea, though the aide said there is concern that the increased benefit would fuel continued high unemployment.
The aide said a setting a sunset date for the provision might help convince Republicans.
There is a closer deadline when it comes to aid for states and localities. Most state and local fiscal years end June 30 and early data on lost tax revenue could drive action on more federal aid.
But for now, Republicans are gambling that the authorization Congress gave the Fed to extend credit to state and local governments will lessen the need for more direct federal help, even though that credit has yet to be fully implemented.
“Currently we still have additional funds to probably the tune of over a trillion dollars that’s yet to actually be put out into the market from the last CARES Act,” Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee, told Bloomberg last week. “So, let’s make sure that those dollars are effective before we spend again.”
The more gradual approach towards the next bill also applies in the other direction: Republicans don’t want to pare back existing relief measures like a CARES Act provision allowing businesses to carry back net operating losses as far back as five yearsâ??as some current proposals would do.
Mark Warren, chief tax counsel for Senate Finance Republicans, indicated during a May 22 panel discussion with Grossman that Republicans wouldn’t be open to passing something that they would view as a retroactive tax increase.
“Especially when economists all say that increasing taxes in a recessionâ??it hasn’t been declared yet, but it’s hard to imagine we’re notâ??that that’s just really the wrong policy for a recovery,” Warren said.
So, we will see. Clearly, the stakes are high concerning the details in the next legislative package. As a result, the current negotiations should be watched closely by producers as details are hammered out over the coming weeks, Washington Insider believes.
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