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Lawmakers grumble about being left in the dark on USDA climate-smart projects

The Biden administration bypassed lawmakers when it tripled the size of its climate-smart commodities initiative and may face congressional investigations and stricter limits on USDA spending as a consequence, said two farm policy consultants on Wednesday.

“I think there will be an attempt to interject the Congress into the CCC process because of what’s happened,” said Colin Peterson, former chair of the House Agriculture Committee.

Peterson, a 15-term Democrat before opening a consulting shop, and longtime consultant Randy Russell, a USDA official during the Reagan era, told a North American Agricultural Journalists meeting that a close division of power in the House might force lawmakers to cooperate on the farm bill due in 2023.

“I would say that ‘easy’ and ‘farm bill’ should never be used in the same sentence,” cautioned Russell.

Congress limited USDA authority to spend money through the CCC, the Commodity Credit Corp., from 2012 to 2017, with Republicans saying USDA had unfairly tried to aid the re-election of Senate Agriculture chair Blanche Lincoln by launching a cotton support program. The limitations were removed after President Trump took office. The CCC has $30 billion in spending authority and broad powers to use it to boost commodity prices and support farm income. Peterson and Russell said lawmakers were rankled by the overnight mushrooming of the USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the initiative in February as a $1 billion array of pilot projects to mitigate global warming and create new income sources for farmers through more sustainable products and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. In mid-September, Vilsack said the demonstration projects would get $3.5 billion in federal support.

“I think in the House you could see some investigations,” said Peterson, who recounted rumblings from “down within the rank and file” and also among “some senior agriculture members” that the administration had acted on its own to create a large program overnight without informing Capitol Hill. Russell said the issue was the lack of advance notice or consultation with lawmakers about the projects. “So I do think there is an issue there that needs to be addressed.”

Republican Rep. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania, in line to become House Agriculture chair in January, scolded the administration for “unilaterally spending billions of dollars without congressional input” on the climate-smart initiative. 

“It’s as though Secretary Vilsack is intent on having Congress once again limit his ability to use the CCC,” said Thompson on Sept. 14.

Since then, two members of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the USDA budget have hinted at a crackdown on USDA’s discretion to spend money. Congress allotted $20 billion in the climate, health, and tax law for climate mitigation through USDA soil and water conservation programs.

“I think that one of the things that Congress is going to have to grapple with is the intersection of the farm bill and the Inflation Reduction Act funding,” said Russell. A substantial portion of the money could be spent on activities that generate co-benefits, he said, such as improvements in soil health, water quality, and wildlife habitat.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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