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Washington Roundup – February 2021

Agriculture Provisions Included in COVID Relief Package

President Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to provide additional stimulus and relief related to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Congress is advancing the package through the budget reconciliation process, which allows the Senate to avoid the filibuster and pass the legislation with a simple majority.  The House Budget Committee passed the package on February 23rd and full passage by the House of Representatives is expected by February 26th.  The measure will then move to the Senate with the goal of finalizing before March 14th when federal unemployment benefits expire.

Key provisions to be implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture include:

  • $1 Billion in assistance to and support for community-based organizations and 1890 Land Grant and other minority-serving institutions that work with Black farmers and other farmers of color on land access, financial training, heirs property issues, training the next generation and access to education
  • Farm Loan Assistance for Black farmers and other farmers of color
  • Extending 15% SNAP benefit increase through September 30, 2021
  • $37 million to the Commodity Supplemental Food Program to fill a gap that has grown as food for this program has become scarcer during the pandemic
  • $500 million in Community Facility Program funds to help rural hospitals and local communities broaden access to COVID-19 vaccines & food assistance
  • $3.6 billion for the Secretary of Agriculture to continue to help the food and ag sector supply chains
  • $100 million in overtime fee relief to small meat and poultry processors currently grappling with COVID-19-related backlogs
  • $300 million to conduct surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 in animals
  • $800 million for the Food for Peace program, including for purchases of U.S.-grown crops used in international humanitarian aid

 

FY 2022 Budget Process Delayed, Congress Considers Return of Earmarks

The Biden Administration has indicated that its submission for the fiscal year 2022 budget will be delayed.  It is common for incoming presidential administrations to miss the traditional timeframe of early February for annual President’s Budget proposals.  In many cases, the incoming administration will provide a high-level overview of its budget priorities in late February or March and a more detailed, full budget proposal later in the spring.  It appears that the Biden Administration is likely to follow this pattern, which could delay the annual budget and appropriations process for fiscal year 2022. 

While Congress awaits the first Biden budget, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are considering a return to earmarks.  The process for Congressionally directing appropriations spending to member priority projects was halted in 2011 after a series of controversies related to earmarks.  In the past, agricultural research accounts were home to dozens of annual earmarks. 

Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate have indicated a desire to reinstate the process and are working to develop a framework for their return.  While the new earmark policy has yet to be finalized, it is likely that there will be strict rules around are the process.  It is expected that eligibility will be confined to state and local governments and nonprofits. 

Senate Confirms Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture

On February 23rd, the Senate voted 92-7 to confirm Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture.  The former Governor of Iowa has enjoyed good bipartisan relationships and his speedy confirmation was widely expected.  This will be Vilsack’s second round as Agriculture Secretary, as he spent eight years in the post during the Obama Administration. 

Secretary Vilsack has indicated that his initial priorities for the Department will include:

  • Pandemic relief
  • Equity and inclusion
  • Climate and regenerative agriculture
  • Rural economic development
  • Nutrition security and assistance
  • Open and competitive markets
  • USDA employee morale
  • Forest Service management

Biden Letter Outlines Science Priorities

Shortly before President Biden was inaugurated, he sent a letter to his choice as Presidential Science Advisor, Eric Lander.  The letter, which has since been posted on the White House website gives clues as to the science priorities for the Biden Administration.  Below are the five questions President Biden posed to Dr. Lander that set the stage for science in the Biden Administration:

1. What can we learn from the pandemic about what is possible—or what ought to be possible— to address the widest range of needs related to our public health?

2. How can breakthroughs in science and technology create powerful new solutions to address climate change—propelling market-driven change, jump-starting economic growth, improving health, and growing jobs, especially in communities that have been left behind?

3. How can the United States ensure that it is the world leader in the technologies and industries of the future that will be critical to our economic prosperity and national security, especially in competition with China?

4. How can we guarantee that the fruits of science and technology are fully shared across America and among all Americans?

5. How can we ensure the long-term health of science and technology in our nation?