Congress Finalizes Aid Package

Congress Closes Out Year Approving $900 Billion Coronavirus Aid Bill

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Congress late Monday voted to approve a $900 billion aid package and pass an omnibus fiscal-year 2021 spending bill to close out the lame-duck Congress. The aid package included several provisions to help agriculture, as well as $1.5 billion to buy commodities for food banks. (USDA photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- After months of partisan wrangling over aid to Americans, Congress voted Monday night to pass a $900 billion coronavirus aid package and a $1.4 trillion omnibus appropriations bill to fund the federal government.

The House split the government funding into two separate votes, both of which passed with large bipartisan margins. The first passed 327-85. The second set of bills, which included the $900 billion coronavirus aid package, passed 359-53.

The Senate also voted 91-7 to pass the package late Monday night and send it to President Donald Trump to sign into law.

For agriculture, the relief bill provides nearly $11.2 billion to USDA for aid to farm operations, but also includes explicit instructions to USDA officials on how that aid will be spent.

"The bill also contains much-needed help for dairy farmers, funding for small and mid-sized livestock processors to attain federal inspection in order to accommodate increased demand, as well as animal health work and grants to state departments for ongoing farm stress programs," said outgoing House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn. "The effects of this pandemic are still being seen all along the food supply chain. Folks are still struggling to get enough to eat, and farmers are still reeling from disruptions to the marketplace."

The aid bill includes an estimated $5 billion that will provide supplemental $20-per-acre payments to all commodity crops. Another $1 billion will provide payments to cattle producers, contract growers of livestock and poultry, dairy farmers and livestock producers who were forced to euthanize their livestock or poultry because of the pandemic and its impacts on the supply chain. Another $225 million will be provided for supplemental payments to specialty-crop growers who lost their crops in 2019.

More aid will go toward food purchases, donations and worker protection. That includes another $1.5 billion in food purchases likely under USDA's Farmers to Families Food Box program, or a similar effort. Yet, there will also be a mandatory review of USDA's food purchases and distributions under that program. More aid will be to fund personal protective equipment (PPE) for agriculture and food-system workers and retooling support for farmers, farmers markets and food processors to respond to COVID-19.

"Making contract growers eligible for aid, dedicating support for PPE for farm and food system workers, investing in local and regional markets and processing infrastructure, and ensuring more farmers can participate in procurement efforts like the Farmers to Families Food Box program show that Congress is taking some overdue steps to assist farmers who need help now," said Eric Deeble, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Another $400 million will go to help the donation of dairy products for food distribution to help minimize food waste. The bill has several provisions for food banks and seniors, including $400 million in direct funding for food banks that includes up to 20% for distribution of commodities.

The bill also includes a 15% increase in Supplemental Food Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for the next six months.

Some industry and agricultural groups noted Monday specific provisions to support them. Ethanol producers had lost an estimated $4 billion early in the COVID-19 lockdowns when travel was halted. The Renewable Fuels Association and American Coalition for Ethanol highlighted that the bill spells out "that renewable fuel producers are eligible to receive COVID-19 emergency relief aid from USDA." Funding from the bill can be used to "make payments to producers of advanced biofuel, biomass-based diesel, cellulosic biofuel, conventional biofuel, or renewable fuel ... produced in the United States, for unexpected market losses as a result of COVID--19," RFA stated.

The bill also includes extensions of key renewable-fuel tax credits, including the Second Generation Biofuel Producer Tax Credit.

A provision in the bill also will provide funds to USDA waive payment limits to provide additional aid to producers who did not qualify for support or full support under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

A big chunk of the coronavirus aid for businesses comes from $284 billion for the Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). The overall PPP provisions allow forgivable loans of up to 2.5 times average monthly payroll costs in the year leading up to the loan. The loans are capped at $2 million. If last spring is any indication of demand, the PPP funds could go quickly, so farmers interested in applying should begin working with their lenders on the application process.

The National Milk Producers Federation pointed out the bill makes improvements to PPP to make the program work better for sole proprietors, independent contractors and self-employed dairy farmers by allowing them to use their 2019 gross farm income as reported on a Schedule F to determine PPP loan amounts.

Another provision for dairy farmers will provide supplemental Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) payments for farmers who have increased their DMC production history since 2014.

The bill also helps small meat and poultry processors by providing $60 million in grants to make improvements that would help those processors meet federal food safety inspection standards.

States would also be eligible for block grants to fund farmer and rancher stress management due to the coronavirus.

Also included in the bill will be checks to American families. Individuals could expect to receive $600 checks, provided their income falls under $75,000. The income level doubles to $150,000 for married couples but phases out completely for couples making more than $198,000. Congress also will provide a $300-a-week boost for federal unemployment benefits. The direct checks and unemployment are half of the aid Congress provided in similar legislation last spring.

The final funding bill also included new reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act. The WRDA bill authorizes 46 new waterway projects nationally, ranging from port upgrades to improving locks, dams and flood gates, as well as 27 different feasibility studies for future projects.

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Chris Clayton