March 11, 2021
Nearly a year since the coronavirus pandemic first swept across the country — shuttering businesses, restaurants, and schools alike — the finish line for another round of COVID relief is finally within sight. This week, Congress took steps to move forward additional COVID relief by passing the American Rescue Plan (ARP). Bouncing back and forth in the Capitol building over the past month, the ARP was first drafted and passed in the House, modified and passed in the Senate, and finally passed in the modified form by the House and now heads to the President’s desk.
The ARP is one of the largest recovery and stimulus bills in history, passing Congress by the narrowest of margins. The $1.9 trillion dollar legislative package contains numerous provisions to help Americans recover from the coronavirus pandemic including resources for vaccination efforts and public health, extensions of unemployment insurance, $1,400 stimulus checks to eligible individuals, a child care tax credit, aid to state and local governments to maintain services, housing assistance, support for school reopenings, and support for flagging pension funds to pay retirees. Many of these provisions were put forward in the Biden-Harris administration’s pandemic response proposal while other elements were added during drafting and debate in Congress.
Comprehensive reviews of ARP provisions – and the ways in which they may be implemented – are covered by experts elsewhere so in this blog we will focus on the agricultural and food system related provisions.
While the agriculture components are relatively small compared to the rest of the bill, amounting to $16 billion, or less than one percent of total spending authorized in the Senate bill, they are significant and will provide the newly appointed Secretary of Agriculture with additional resources to help farmers mitigate the prolonged impacts of this pandemic, especially marginalized communities most impacted.
ARP includes funding to provide relief for BIPOC farmers, provide direct payments to farmers, purchase farm commodities for distribution to families in need, and strengthen food supply chains and processing capacity disrupted by the pandemic. While many of the specifics regarding exactly how funding will be distributed is up to the Administration, the bill includes many provisions that reflect NSAC’s top priorities and those championed by sustainable agriculture allies. These include:
In order to pass this relief package with such thin margins, the slim Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress used a legislative tool known as “budget reconciliation” to streamline and expedite passage of additional COVID relief. This process essentially allows the Senate to bypass the filibuster and pass spending-related bills with only a simple majority, rather than the 60 vote threshold required for most Senate bills.
As part of Congress’s annual budget process, each chamber typically passes a budget resolution, which may contain reconciliation instructions to authorize additional, or cut existing, spending. The long overdue budget resolution for Fiscal Year 2021, which was released earlier this year, included reconciliation instructions for both the House and Senate aimed at providing additional pandemic relief, as outlined in the Biden-Harris administration’s $1.9 trillion response plan. This resolution set the parameters for the relief package that made its way through the House, then the Senate, and will soon be signed into law.
We anticipate that Congress will use the FY 2022 budget reconciliation bill as an opportunity to authorize additional funding for infrastructure-related projects over the coming months. However, it will take Congress some time to work through new political confirmations, annual appropriations, and the introduction of marker bills so it is unlikely that a bill will be taken up before the Summer. While it is uncertain the extent to which food and agriculture priorities might be included in an infrastructure package, NSAC and our allies will be pushing to ensure climate and small meat processing infrastructure are on the table during budget debates on Capitol Hill.