Washington Insider-- Thursday

Expanding Various Aid Programs

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

Potential Movement on COVID Aid

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., suggested that Democrats might be willing to cut more from their proposal to reach agreement on immediate needs and return to do more later. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Pelosi's decision to break out $25 billion in funding for the U.S. Postal Service from the original Democratic relief plan could provide an opening for talks.

However, any accord is still likely to wait until September. Pelosi said both sides “have to try to come to that agreement now.” She suggested Democrats might go beyond their most recent offer to trim the $3.5 trillion relief package the House passed in May and come back later for the rest.

The Trump administration sees a possibility for Republicans and Democrats to agree on a smaller round of pandemic relief totaling $500 billion that would omit the biggest areas of disagreement, a senior U.S. official said Tuesday night.

Both parties might be able to reach an accord on issues like financial help for the Postal Service, aid to schools and more money for businesses to keep their workers employed, the official said.


Fed Notes Difficulties in Ag, Energy Sectors

Minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting July 28-29 saw Fed officials note the situation in the U.S. energy and agriculture sectors, with observations that the two sectors continue to struggle.

“Several participants also commented on ongoing challenges facing the energy or farm sector despite recent improvements,” the minutes said. “In the energy sector, these challenges included still-low oil demand, excess inventories, and low oil prices, while in the farm sector they included low prices of some farm commodities, pandemic-related disruptions in some food processing plants, and a significant decline in demand for ethanol.”

Overall, the minutes still indicated what Fed officials have signaled since that meeting – the direction for the U.S. economy remains dependent on the coronavirus and the public response to it.

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Washington Insider: Expanding Various Aid Programs

Bloomberg is reporting this week that Democratic and Republican leaders are hinting about a possible path toward reviving stalled negotiations on the next round of pandemic relief, even as the sides remain far apart.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., suggested during the weekend that Democrats might be willing to cut more from their proposal to reach agreement on immediate needs and -- with her party growing more confident of gains in the November elections -- return to do more after votes are cast.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., meanwhile said Pelosi's decision to break out $25 billion in funding for the Postal Service from the original Democratic relief plan could provide an opening for future talks, Bloomberg said.

Although Speaker Pelosi is bringing the House back to Washington to vote Saturday on a post office bill that would prevent any cutbacks by the agency as well as provide the extra money, there was no sign McConnell would do the same. There is some suggestion that both sides “should try to come to agreement now.” The Speaker suggested Democrats might go beyond their most recent offer to trim at least temporarily the $3.5 trillion relief package the House passed in May.

The Trump administration claims to see a possibility for Republicans and Democrats to agree on a smaller round of pandemic relief totaling $500 billion that would omit the biggest areas of disagreement, a senior U.S. official said Monday night. The hope was that both parties might be able to reach an accord on issues like financial help for the Postal Service, aid to schools and more money for businesses to keep their workers employed.

Bloomberg also reported on another area of growing urgency — students returning to classrooms or sitting at computers for online learning who lack access to nutritious meals. Lawmakers from both parties are emphasizing this growing need in requests to USDA.

“Food insecurity is skyrocketing,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine. “USDA must take immediate action to extend flexibilities for these programs through the next school year to ensure they're serving every kid who needs them.”

Secretary Perdue's USDA has already extended nationwide waivers to permit meal service outside of traditional times and in non-group settings. Parents and guardians are also allowed to pick up their children's meals through next June, according to the department. Some lawmakers now are urging the renewal of the few remaining waivers, including several that affect low-income students.

“We continue to look at all options within our statutory and budget authority to assist program operators with the challenges they are facing during the current health crisis,” Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Pam Miller said on Tuesday. “This is a very dynamic situation, so we are tracking on-the-ground conditions and working closely with our state and local partners to serve the best interests of students and families.”

The latest push for USDA action came from 20 GOP senators, led by Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan. The group pressed Perdue to use waivers, grants, or reimbursements that allow schools and sponsor organizations to feed students learning both in-person and remotely.

The other 10 Republicans on the panel, including McConnell, also signed the Monday letter.

The department should use its authority under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to extend all nationwide waivers for unexpected school closures, the lawmakers said.

A larger, bipartisan group of more than 30 senators echoed the waiver requests for unexpected school closures. Other waivers yet to be renewed include one for the area eligibility requirement, which typically limits “open site” meal service for summer meals programs to places where at least half the children are in low-income households. That waiver currently is extended only through Aug. 31.

The department is reviewing all state waiver requests and is sharing information with Congress to ensure members understand stakeholders' specific needs, as well as the department's abilities to address those needs, USDA said Tuesday.

“More students are expected to depend on school-provided meals this year due to the millions of parents and guardians who have lost their jobs during the pandemic,” said Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., an Agriculture Committee member who signed the letter. “I'm glad that there is broad bipartisan support behind this issue,” she added in her Tuesday statement. “Now we need Secretary Perdue to act.”

So, we will see. Clearly, pressure is growing for Congressional support of many kinds in efforts to significantly offset the coronavirus impacts — and to ensure that the fall elections are conducted fairly and on schedule. At the same time, any sign of cooperation in expanding helpful programs likely will be widely noticed and welcome, Washington Insider believes.


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