Perdue testifies before congressional committees

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue was a busy man the last week of February, testifying before the House Agriculture Committee Feb. 27, and the Senate Agriculture Committee the following day.

At the House Agriculture Committee hearing, Chairman Collin Peterson, D-MN, and Ranking Member Michael Conaway, R-Texas, came after Perdue from differing angles.

In an opening statement, Peterson said, “Your visits to the committee over the last two years have come roughly at the same time as the White House’s call for billions in cuts to USDA programs. This year is no different. Just this week, the White House called for a 5 percent cut to non-defense spending. While that is concerning on its own, it’s compounded by your comments that this number may potentially be as high as 10 percent or higher. That worries a lot of us given the broad range of challenges confronting farmers, ranchers, rural communities and working families.

“Incomes continue to decline, wins on trade have yet to materialize, credit and capital are becoming harder to obtain, and folks are deciding it’s easier to sell the farm and move to the city than to continue trying to grind out a living.”

Peterson then said he was worried about dairy farmers, who because the old dairy program was so ineffective they’ll decide to leave farming before they give the new dairy provisions in this bill a chance.

“That’s a mistake, because the new Dairy Margin Coverage is specifically designed to give those smaller and medium-sized dairies the safety net they need. We need them to know that this program will help. But they’re snakebit, and it’s going to take persistent outreach to get them on board. I hope that’s a challenge you’re committed to tackling, Mr. Secretary.

“Beyond the dairy provisions, the farm bill helps provide resources to small communities for broadband connectivity, mental health services, and substance abuse prevention. But what doesn’t help is taking an indiscriminate whack at funding for these and other programs in the midst of a farm economy like this one.

“Now it’s my hope that you’ve got some better news to share—that you see some blue sky through these clouds. You’ve always given it to us straight, Mr. Secretary, and you’ve always been a fierce defender of the programs USDA is charged with administering. I appreciate that very much.”

After the hearing, Peterson told reporters that the administration’s plan to rein in state work-requirement waivers in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program isn’t going anywhere, Politico reported.

“I’ll guarantee you it’s not going to happen,” Peterson said. During the hearing, Democrats criticized the proposal, as they have in the past.

Conaway, in his opening statement, lauded Perdue for helping is getting the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade signed by the three countries as well as promoting the Market Facilitation Program to offset farmer losses due to the Trump administration’s imposition of tariffs on China. Congress has not ratified the agreement yet.

“Mr. Secretary, I know you are also working hard to ensure that there is a successful resolution very soon to the ongoing trade dispute with China—a resolution that will help level the playing field for the United States and require China to live by the same rules we do,” Conaway said. “During this process, I greatly appreciate the initiative you took to provide farmers and ranchers with the Market Facilitation Program to help them weather the unjustified retaliatory tariffs that have been imposed.

The most controversial part of the hearing came when Perdue told the House Aggies that federal rules to allow sales of higher-ethanol fuel won’t be ready in time for the summer driving season, after the government shutdown stopped work on the proposal.

“Now it won’t happen,” Perdue said. But officials are looking into “discretionary” moves they could make to allow gas stations to sell the fuel, he said.

The proposed expansion of E15 fuel sales into the summer is up to Environmental Protection Agency, not USDA. But Perdue, has advocated for the change, which would benefit corn growers who sell to ethanol plants.

EPA, in a statement released later in the day, disputed Perdue’s assessment, and said its proposal would be out on time.

Behind the proposal is a directive from Trump, who has promised year-round E15 sales and told EPA to write regulations to make them happen.

EPA, through a spokesman, said it still aims to release a proposal in March and to finalize the rules before summer. The RVP proposal will be combined with changes proposed to renewable fuel credits, which are traded as part of federal ethanol mandates, he said.

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“This is an EPA proposal,” said EPA spokesman Michael Abboud in a statement. “EPA is planning on releasing its RVP market reform proposal in March, and working expeditiously to propose and finalize the rule consistent with the President’s direction before the start of the summer driving season.”

Then, a tweet from Perdue picturing him and EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler together was posted a bit later in the afternoon that appeared to walk back his hearing comments. Perdue said of Wheeler: “Appreciate him moving expeditiously to finalize E-15 rule before the start of summer driving season.”

Senators meet Perdue

The following day, Perdue met with Senate Agriculture Committee members. Chairman Pat Roberts, R-KS, said in his opening statement: “Secretary Perdue is no stranger to the committee. In fact, as we successfully worked in a bipartisan, bicameral manner to craft the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, USDA was an important part of the process. Over the last two years, the department offered valuable technical advice throughout the drafting and conference stages.

“When the 2018 farm bill was signed by the president last December, it accomplished what we set out to do—provide certainty and predictability for farmers, families, and rural communities.

Now, we look forward to hearing about the department’s efforts to implement the new farm bill. We will work together to ensure that these programs are operating as Congress intended and that changes are implemented as promptly as possible.”

Roberts said the 2018 farm bill provides much needed certainty and predictability to farmers and ranchers across all regions and all crops-as promised.

“The bill provides additional resources and risk management tools for producers. It makes improvements to the Price Loss Coverage and Agriculture Risk Coverage programs, while providing a new election and future opportunities to change those decisions.

“Importantly, producers maintain the ability to plant for the marketplace, not the government. And, this farm bill strengthens and improves the crop insurance program, something we heard loud and clear from producers throughout our listening process.

“In summary, the ag committees were successful in reaching bipartisan, bicameral agreement on a strong farm bill in a timely manner.”

Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, said in her statement the administration has proposed a partisan rule that makes changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that were rejected by Congress and would take food assistance away from Americans struggling to find steady work.

“This proposal is a blatant run around the law that would leave families hungry while doing nothing to connect people to long-term employment. It will face fierce opposition from lawmakers and advocates, and I encourage you to withdraw it,” Stabenow told Perdue.

The proposed rule would change the process in which states may gain waiver to continue giving SNAP benefits to able-bodied adults without dependents. These ABAWDs, as they are called, are supposed to work or be in a job training program for at least 20 hours a week unless they live in an area which has received a waiver exempting it from the requirement. Without one of the waivers, ABAWDs can receive benefits only three months of every three years.

The most significant change in the proposed rule would prevent states or areas of states from getting waivers unless their unemployment rate is at least 7 percent. That restriction, coupled with additional changes, would reduce the areas that would qualify for waivers by about 75 percent, according to USDA. The restrictions would cut the cost of the program by an estimated $15 billion over 10 years.

“I also have questions about the USDA’s capacity to implement the farm bill, Stabenow said. “Year after year, the president’s budget proposals have called for steep cuts to USDA staff—and rumor has it, this year’s budget won’t be any better for agriculture. Congress has rejected these cuts and instead provided the department enough resources to fill vacant positions and support our farmers.

“However, I want to know why so many important positions remain unfilled.”

Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown, of Ohio, and Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York, also questioned Perdue over the SNAP funding cut proposal.

The rule would still allow states to get waivers from the work requirements “where high employment may occur from loss of a company or something like that,” Perdue told Gillibrand. “ We do not believe that in states where employment is 4 percent that able-bodied adults should be able to stay on food assistance interminably.”

In another part of the hearing, Perdue told Sen. John Thune, R-SD, the Farm Service Agency would switch this year to using Risk Management Agency data rather than National Agricultural Statistics Service data for determining county crop yields under the Agriculture Risk Coverage program.

Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or [email protected].