House Agriculture Chairman Collin C. Peterson said coronavirus legislation that gave billions of dollars to the Agriculture Department for an economic relief package left his committee little say about the distribution of $16 billion in payments to farmers and ranchers.
“I am concerned that the Ag Committee has basically been neutered in this whole process, and we don’t have really anything to say about anything. We’re getting all the flak from people,” the Minnesota Democrat said Wednesday in a phone interview with CQ Roll Call.
He said constituents have been calling to complain about flaws they see in the structure of the payments and don’t believe his explanation that he has little input beyond voting for the March 27 legislation. The bill provided $9.5 billion in appropriated funds and $14 billion in borrowing authority for the Commodity Credit Corporation to construct a relief plan.
Peterson and subcommittee leaders Jim Costa, D-Calif., Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I., and Filemon Vela, D-Texas, sent Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue a letter relaying questions and criticism Peterson says they have collected from other lawmakers, people in their districts and farm groups.
“We thought some of these issues were valid and legitimate and they deserved answers so we sent the letter,” Peterson said.
The letter notes, among other things, that some crops grown under contract are not eligible for payments, questions the dates used to determine livestock losses and argues that the premium prices paid for organic crops are not factored into the payments.
Peterson said he hopes the USDA addresses the issues. The department is taking public comment until June 22 on possible changes to the payment program and has indicated it is open to making changes.
Despite the letter, Peterson said he sympathizes with Perdue for having to scramble to produce a plan to aid farmers and ranchers financially affected by COVID-19 market disruption. Perdue “has a tough job,” Peterson said.
He said he might try a virtual hearing to follow up although he doesn’t like such meetings. “Once we get a response, then we’ll decide if we will try to do a virtual hearing,” he said.
Peterson said the House schedule does not allow enough time for an in-person hearing and he thinks it will be difficult to find a hearing room to accommodate social distancing for the 47-member committee. The House is scheduled to be in town June 25 and June 26.
However, Peterson said he wants the committee to do a “top to bottom” review later this year of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on agriculture.
Peterson also said he will work with the USDA to develop a pandemic plan for addressing African swine fever, avian influenza, foot-and-mouth disease and other animal diseases that could decimate the livestock and poultry industries.