OMAHA (DTN) -- Agricultural leaders expressed relief for the industry's inclusion in a massive $2 trillion stimulus bill for the U.S. economy, though the legislation again faced stumbling blocks even after an agreement was announced Wednesday.
After the early morning deal was announced, a group of Republican senators on Wednesday declared the bill had a "drafting error" due to the amount of federal unemployment benefits that would go out on top of current state unemployment benefits. As Republicans threatened to hold up the bill over that language, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., countered he would hold up the bill over direct aid going to businesses.
Under the bill, USDA would have $48.9 billion to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, along with added funding for the Food and Drug Administration, according to a fact sheet summary released by the Senate Committee on Appropriations.
Among the aid to specific industries includes a $14 billion boost in funding authority for USDA's Commodity Credit Corp. that would allow USDA to provide more direct aid to producers. USDA's CCC program has been depleted this year because of the Market Facilitation Program, but the new funding would allow USDA to provide more aid.
The legislation also includes a $9.5 billion assistance program that would more directly assist livestock operations, including dairy farmers, as well as fruit-and-vegetable (specialty) crop producers. Farmers who sell directly to farmers markets, schools and restaurants would also be eligible for aid.
Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, called on swift passage of the bill through Congress to provide resources to farmers.
"The aid to farmers in this package, including funding for the CCC and the Office of the Secretary, will allow USDA to begin crafting an appropriate relief program for agriculture," Duvall said. He added, "America's farmers and ranchers face enormous volatility as markets and supply chains rapidly react to changes, but I'll say again that farmers and ranchers will not let Americans down. All members of Congress must understand that farmers have almost no control over the prices of the goods we produce, so fulfilling our commitment to America requires a team effort."
Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union, credited the legislation for boosting aid to rural hospitals and funding for rural health care overall. He added that farmers and ranchers are also worried about their long-term financial stability right now. The disruptions affect both markets and labor, and farm operations will not survive if challenges continue.
"By providing much-needed support for rural health care and family farm agriculture, the stimulus bill would address many of our most urgent concerns," Larew said. "In the coming weeks, we will learn more about the additional needs of our rural health care system, farmers and rural communities, and we urge Congress to be ready to address them."
While people will still be learning details of the package, a group of four Republican senators said the bill contains a "massive drafting error," as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., described it. Graham held a press event with Sens. Tim Scott of South Carolina, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Rick Scott of Florida to raise concerns about $600 in weekly federal unemployment payments that would go on top what people already receive. For some people, that would drive them to remain unemployed, senators said.
"We cannot encourage people to make more in unemployment than employment," said Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.
Sen. Sanders then jumped in on social media and said if GOP senators don't drop their objections on unemployment benefits, then he would place a hold on the bill to push for more restrictions against $500 billion in funding for corporations.
Late into the afternoon on Wednesday, it was still unclear when Senators would vote on the bill, which also would have to pass the House.
Beyond the direct aid to farmers, the bill also includes an additional $15.5 billion for USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the single-largest food-aid program in the country. Child nutrition programs would receive another $8.8 billion, and there are special provisions to distribute food aid on Native American reservations as well.
USDA's Rural Development programs would receive $25 million for distance learning and telemedicine programs. Lawmakers cited the value in boosting telemedicine as a way to treat patients without having possible spreading of the disease for people who do not need hospitalization. Another $100 million would also go to further boost rural broadband.
Other provisions throughout the bill include more funding for food banks and local food pantries.
While agricultural markets have rebounded this week, both livestock and grain markets have lost significant value for producers since mid-January when the world first began seeing the spread of COVID-19. Agricultural groups had written congressional leaders on Tuesday asking for specific aid. Cattlemen organizations and biofuel organizations also had asked Congress for aid for their industries.
The bill creates $500 billion on a direct corporate aid program. Small businesses would have access to roughly $367 billion in loan programs with the caveat that they keep their workers during the coronavirus crisis. If employers continue paying workers, the loans would be forgiven. The bill also includes $25 billion directly for the airline industry.
For most Americans, they would receive checks of $1,200 per year if they earned less than $75,000, which would be based on adjusted gross income of taxpayers from their 2018 or 2019 tax returns. Married couples earning less than $150,000 would receive $2,400, and every child claimed on a tax return would be worth another $500.
The bill also would provide $130 billion for hospitals as well as $150 billion for state and local governments. For certain rural hospitals classified as Critical Access Hospitals, the bill would boost Medicare payments to 125% of medical costs for at least a six-month period. The White House had already ordered that Critical Access Hospitals also could expand their beds to deal with the potential rise in patients.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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