For the last several weeks, Agri-Pulse has been reporting that Senate Republicans have been trying to advance a new coronavirus relief package that would equal roughly $1 trillion.
They’ve been taking more time to assess what they believe is needed next, much to the dismay of many of their House counterparts, who passed a $3 trillion package in mid-May.
The Senate package, dubbed the “HEALS Act,” which stands for health; economic assistance; liability protection; and schools, was unveiled on July 27. Now, the work begins on trying to find potential compromises between the two versions before they all leave for the August recess.
It won’t be easy. Several House Democrats largely disagree with many of the provisions.
The Senate GOP plan includes another round of direct payments for Americans, liability protections for businesses, doctors and schools, a reduction in the enhanced per week federal unemployment benefit from $600 to $200, and more funding for Paycheck Protection Program small business loans.
It would essentially forgive all Paycheck Protection Program loans under $150,000 without farmers and other borrowers having to prove that they spent the proceeds on allowable expenses.
The Senate package would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture broad authority to spend an additional $20 billion to compensate agricultural producers and processors for the impact of the pandemic.
The money would augment the $14 billion that USDA now has available to spend in its Commodity Credit Corp. account as a result of the CARES Act, enacted in March.
As GOP senators had made clear in recent days, the legislation would put few strings on USDA when it comes to spending the $20 billion earmarked in the bill for farm relief.
The bill says the money can be used “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus by providing support for agricultural producers, growers, and processors impacted by coronavirus, including producers, growers, and processors of specialty crops, non-specialty crops, dairy, livestock and poultry, including livestock and poultry depopulated due to insufficient processing access and growers who produce livestock or poultry under a contract for another entity.”
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-MN, has said he will demand more restrictions on how USDA allocates the payments.
The House-passed HEROES Act authorized $33 billion in farm relief, including $16 billion specifically for a second round of payments under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. The bill also specifically mandated relief to ethanol producers as well as indemnities for pork and poultry producers whose animals were euthanized.
The Senate bill doesn’t expressly mention the biofuel industry, but an aide to the chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, John Hoeven of North Dakota, said the inclusion of processors as eligible recipients would allow USDA make payments to ethanol producers.
The top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, declined comment when asked by Agri-Pulse whether the $20 billion would be sufficient.
Hoeven said the $20 billion "will help to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on farm country. Between the new direct funding and the CCC commitment, USDA will provide $34 billion to producers."
The Farm Service Agency would get an additional $76.4 million to cover temporary staff and overtime costs.
For farmers who have taken out PPP loans, there would be a specific local calculation based on Schedule F agriculture income.
All PPP borrowers, including farmers, would also be allowed to select any eight-week period during 2020 to use the forgivable loan proceeds. That provision would benefit farms whose highest payroll periods were during the fall or at another time that isn’t allowed under the current restrictions.
Forgivable PPP loan expenses would be expanded to include the cost of worker protections among other costs.
Todd Van Hoose, president and CEO of the Farm Credit Council, said that the GOP legislation was "a real beneficial bill for agriculture."
Missing from the Senate GOP bill was an expansion of the Soil Health and Income Protection Program, which was authorized as a 50,000-acre pilot program under the 2018 farm bill. The HEROES Act would expand the set-aside program to 5 million acres and offer farmers an annual payment of $70 an acre to enroll land in SHIPP for three years.
Also missing was a 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that Democrats and anti-hunger groups are demanding.
The "HEALS Act is an unconscionable failure in our federal response to the COVID-19 hunger crisis," according to a joint statement by the Alliance to End Hunger, Bread for the World, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Feeding America, Food Research and Action Center, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, and Share our Strength.
Editor’s note: Sara Wyant can be reached at www.agri-pulse.com.