Split on party lines, a House subcommittee approved a USDA spending bill on Thursday that would rescind $6 billion earmarked for clean energy and farm loan forgiveness and end work on fair play rules in livestock marketing.
The bill also would limit Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s access to a $30 billion reserve that is being used to pay for a climate-smart agriculture initiative.
“Some tough decisions have to be made” to get rid of wasteful spending, said Maryland Rep. Andy Harris, chair of the subcommittee overseeing USDA and FDA spending. “This bill takes the same approach American families take every day — they have to do more with less under the Biden economy.”
The House Appropriations Committee may vote next week on the bill, which allocates $17.2 billion for discretionary spending by the USDA, less than half of the $36.8 billion requested by President Biden. The administration proposed a combined $228 billion in USDA outlays for fiscal 2024. Discretionary accounts include ag research, food safety, rural development, and land stewardship, while mandatory spending includes crop subsidies and SNAP.
“This bill turns its back on rural America,” said Georgia Rep. Sanford Bishop, senior Democrat on the subcommittee. The allocation of $17.2 billion for discretionary spending would be the lowest amount for the USDA since 2006, he said. Harris said the figure was effectively $25 billion because the bill would tap $8.2 billion that was given to the USDA for pandemic recovery and through the 2022 climate, health, and tax law.
The GOP-drafted bill would claw back nearly $6 billion in funding, including $3.25 billion earmarked for a rural clean energy program, $2 billion to help distressed borrowers of USDA loans, and $500 million for the Rural Energy for America Program.
“On the regulatory front, this legislation puts a stop to USDA’s efforts under the Packers and Stockyards Act to dictate how poultry and livestock producers raise and market their animals,” said Harris. A rider on the bill would bar the USDA from work on three regulations that would give livestock producers more leverage in dealing with processors.
Meatpackers and activist farm groups have battle for years over so-called fair play rules. Congress blocked the USDA from acting on the rules throughout the Obama era.
Harris said billions of dollars would be saved by reintroducing limits on Vilsack’s authority to tap a $30 billion reserve held by the Commodity Credit Corp., a Depression-era agency known as the USDA’s bank.
Harris hinted during a testy exchange with Vilsack in March that the controls were coming. The Republican-controlled Congress restricted Vilsack’s use of CCC money for five years when he was part of the Obama cabinet.
“By removing the Ag Secretary’s discretionary use of the Commodity Credit Corporation to fund unauthorized non-emergency programs, this legislation saves $1 billion in fiscal year 2024 alone,” said Harris. “Given that USDA used these discretionary powers to spend $2.5 billion and $6.6 billion the last two fiscal years, respectively, I would submit to my colleagues the real savings to taxpayers of taking these authorities away are even higher.”
Vilsack used CCC funding to start the $3.1 billion Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program, with 141 pilot projects that encourage producers to adopt climate-mitigating practices on working lands. Congressional
Republicans have repeatedly questioned the USDA’s authority to bankroll the project through the CCC. The USDA formally launched the climate-smart initiative last month.
In a statement, Vilsack said the funding bill “is pathetic, it is punitive, and it is petty.”
To read a four-page Republican summary of the USDA-FDA funding bill, click here.
Text of the USDA-FDA funding bill is available here.