Congress has been busy this summer debating President Biden’s economic recovery proposals. After the March enactment of the final major pandemic relief measure, the American Rescue Plan Act (PDF), President Biden unveiled his “American Jobs Plan,” a package including proposals for roads, bridges, broadband, and other traditional infrastructure needs; and his “American Families Plan,” a social policy framework that includes universal preschool, free community college, paid family and medical leave, and other family tax credits which would be partially offset by proposed tax increases for higher-income individuals and corporations. Each of these proposals would require legislation from Congress.

Much of the recent discussion has centered on the work of a bipartisan group of Senators seeking to craft an infrastructure package. With an evenly split party ratio in the Senate it is difficult to obtain unified consensus among Democrats, let alone come to agreement on a package which can also bring along at least ten Republicans to ensure a filibuster-proof vote margin. The enormity of this task has made for a series of ups and downs in the efforts to come up with a bipartisan infrastructure bill ahead of the September 30 expiration of the nation’s federal surface transportation programs. In late July, however, the bipartisan team of Senate negotiators announced agreement on a Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework that includes just over $1 trillion in spending for roads, bridges, public transit, power grid improvements, water infrastructure, broadband, and electric vehicles.

When Congress returns in September they are expected to take up legislation through the budget reconciliation process to pursue some of the social policy initiatives included in the Biden American Families Plan. They will also need to pass legislation to fund federal government programs beyond the September 30 fiscal year end deadline. Even though Congressional Democrats control both chambers, the narrow vote margin within both the House and Senate and the diversity of views within the Democratic Party ensure that President Biden will continue to face challenges in enacting his legislative priorities.

Federal agriculture policymakers have focused their efforts this summer on a number of topics including food system resiliency, market disruptions, pandemic recovery, disaster relief, and climate change. The Senate Agriculture Committee continues to process President Biden’s nominees for Administration posts.

  • On June 4, the US Department of Agriculture announced an investment of up to $1 billion to purchase healthy food to build food bank capacity and purchase healthy food for food insecure Americans. Under the plan, USDA will enter into cooperative agreements with state, tribal, and local entities to purchase food from local producers.
  • On June 8, USDA announced $4 billion in funding to strengthen the food system, address supply chain issues, and create new market opportunities. Using funding authorized under the American Rescue Plan Act, USDA will include a mix of grants, loans and other financing mechanisms for food production, food processing, food distribution, and expanded market access for growers.
  • On June 11, USDA announced plans to promulgate rulemaking in support of the Packers and Stockyards (P&S) Act (PDF), a law intended to ensure fair competition and fair trade practices in the marketing of livestock, meat, and poultry which was first enacted in 1921 to address anticompetitive concerns among meat packers. USDA announced its plans to propose a new rule to “provide greater clarity to strengthen enforcement of unfair and deceptive practices, undue preferences, and unjust prejudices;” to propose a new “poultry grower tournament system” rule, withdrawing the current inactive proposal; and to repropose a rule to clarify that parties do not need to demonstrate harm to competition in order to bring actions under sections 202 (a) and b) of the P&S Act.
  • On June 23, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing entitled “Examining Markets, Transparency, and Prices from Cattle Producer to Consumer.” Witnesses included Justin Tupper, Vice President of the United States Cattlemen’s Association; Mark Gardiner, Partner at Gardiner Angus Ranch; Dr. Glynn Tonsor, Professor at Agricultural Economics at Kansas State University; Dr. Dustin Aherin, Animal Protein Analyst at Rabobank; and Dr. Mary Hendrickson, Associate Professor at the University of Missouri. Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Ranking Member John Boozman (R-AR) discussed the challenges facing the industry and the complexities of finding solutions. Chairwoman Stabenow also noted the Committee’s deliberation of the Livestock Mandatory Reporting Act reauthorization and the efforts of fellow Committee members to draft legislation including:
  • 949, legislation introduced by Committee members Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Jon Tester (D-MT) which would amend the Agriculture Marketing Act to foster efficient markets and increase competition and transparency among packer that purchase livestock from producers. The bill would establish that a minimum of fifty percent of a covered packer’s weekly volume of livestock slaughter must be purchased through spot market sales from nonaffiliated producers.
  • 543 (PDF), the “Cattle Market Transparency Act,” legislation introduced by Committee member Senator Deb Fischer (R-IA) and Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) which would establish regional mandatory minimum thresholds of negotiated cash and negotiated grid trades to enable price discovery in cattle marketing regions; require USDA to maintain a publicly available library of marketing contracts between packers and producers in a confidential manner; and mandate that packers report to USDA the number of cattle scheduled to be delivered for slaughter each day for the next 14 days and require USDA to report this information daily.
  • On June 24, the Senate passed S 1251, the Growing Climate Solutions Acct (PDF), legislation which would authorize the Secretary of Agriculture to develop programs to help producers generate and sell carbon credits by setting up a third-party certification process through USDA. Supported by a wide group of food, forestry and conservation organizations (PDF), the bipartisan legislation would also authorize USDA to develop online resources to assist farmers, ranchers, and private forest owners adopt activities that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • On July 9, President Biden signed an Executive Order “Promoting Competition in the American Economy.” Among the Executive Order’s provisions are a directive to USDA to consider issuing new rules under the Packers and Stockyards Act. Noting concentrated market power in agricultural input industries and in channels for selling products, the EO directs the Secretary of Agriculture to consider issuing new P&S Act rules that would reinforce USDA’s interpretation that it is unnecessary for farmers to demonstrate industry-wide harm to establish a violation. The EO also directs USDA to consider issuing rules clarifying when “Product of USA” labels can be used and to develop a plan to improve farmers’ access to markets – including supporting alternative food distribution systems such as farmers markets.
  • On July 13, USDA announced the relief application process for livestock and poultry producers who suffered losses due to insufficient processing access during the pandemic. The Pandemic Livestock Indemnity Program (PLIP (PDF)) provides assistance for losses of livestock and poultry depopulated from March 2, 2020, through December 26, 2020. USDA’s Farm Service Agency is accepting PLIP applications through September 17, 2021.
  • On July 14, the House Agriculture Committee unanimously passed HR 4374 (PDF), the Broadband Internet Connections for Rural America Act, bipartisan legislation which would authorize $4.5 billion in funding, starting in Fiscal Year 2022, for the ReConnect Rural Broad program. The bill would make significant increases to USDA’s existing, expiring rural broadband program.
  • On July 27, the House Agriculture Committee approved HR 267, the ‘‘2020 WHIP+ Reauthorization Act,” legislation to expand and extend the Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus (WHIP+). Originally authorized to cover losses to eligible producers for crop, tree, bush, vine and prevented planting losses from wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, snowstorms, and other natural disasters that occurred in 2018 and 2019, HR 267 would expand WHIP+ coverage to include losses from the western drought, the 2020 Iowa derecho, and other natural disasters in 2020 and 2021.
  • On July 28, the House Agriculture Committee held a hearing entitled “State of the Beef Supply Chain: Shocks, Recovery, and Rebuilding.” Witnesses included Dr. Jayson Lusk (PDF), Head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University; Dr. Jennifer van de Ligt (PDF), Director of the Food Protection and Defense Institute at the University of Minnesota; Dr. Keri Jacobs (PDF), Agricultural Economist at the University of Missouri; and Dr. Dustin Aherin (PDF), Animal Protein Analyst at Rabobank.
  • On July 28, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing entitled “Beefing up Competition: Examining America’s Food Supply Chain.” Witnesses included Jon Schaben, Owner of Dunlap Livestock Auction representing the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association; Shane Miller, Group President of Fresh Meats at Tyson’s Foods (PDF); Rob Larew, President of the National Farmers Union (PDF); David Smith, President and CEO of the National Grocers Association (PDF), Tim Schellpeper, President of the Fed Beef division at JBS USA (PDF); and George Slover, Senior Policy Counsel at Consumer Reports (PDF).
  • On July 29, the House passed a “minibus” appropriations package combining several measures to fund government programs and agencies for Fiscal Year 2022. The package included the Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies spending bill which includes a number of funding increases for programs and activities (PDF) administered by USDA. The Senate has not yet passed appropriations legislation to fund these programs. With the September 30 deadline looming and no agreement yet in sight, it is likely that Congress will need to pass at least one Continuing Resolution to keep federal government agencies funded beyond the end of the fiscal year.