CONGRESS' NASTY FIGHT TO KEEP CCC FUNDED, MFT PAYMENTS FLOWING
Sep. 23, 2019
Partisan rancor on the House Agriculture Committee has reached new heights of bitterness, personal attacks and Twitter-delivered insults.
The sniping on Capitol Hill on Thursday was as nasty, and as public, as at any time during last year's farm bill debate - and it may have been worse.
A spat at a committee hearing in the morning sparked a Lone Star State skirmish in the afternoon between Texas members Mike Conaway and Filemón Vela. Vela, a Democrat, called the ranking Republican a "racist Christian pretender" and took a second verbal shot that was rooted in the 2018 farm bill debate, when Conaway ran the committee.
Thursday's showdown centered on which party should get credit for preserving language in the House short-term spending bill that maintained USDA's ability to continue paying farmers for losses resulting from retaliatory tariffs brought on by President Donald Trump's trade battles.
Hostilities began with a drawn-out debate among House Democrats this week over whether to grant USDA some leeway on the $30 billion cap on borrowing for the Commodity Credit Corporation, the institution the Trump administration has used to make trade aid payments to farmers.
USDA has neared the CCC's borrowing limit as it has continued to write checks to farmers, and the administration asked Congress to preserve its ability to roll out $16 billion in a second round of aid this year.
Moderate Democrats, led by House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), backed the White House's request. The CCC is about more than trade aid to farmers; it also funds commodity subsidies, conservation and disaster aid.
But Democrats beyond the committee and in the Senate wanted to use the stopgap spending bill to force USDA to meet new transparency requirements.
Senate Republicans also weighed in on the House dispute, arguing that the trade aid payments are necessary to keep some farmers in business.
Democratic leadership eventually decided on Wednesday evening to release a stopgap bill that would grant USDA some flexibility at the CCC but require the department to send Congress a breakdown of how the trade-aid money is being spent, as well as a report on how the department estimated trade damage to farmers.
The continuing resolution, which passed the House on Thursday afternoon and will be voted on in the Senate next week, also would require USDA to disclose any foreign-owned companies or their subsidiaries that benefit from trade assistance.
At a hearing on Thursday morning, Peterson and Conaway bickered over the issue. Conaway, who supported the White House's proposal throughout, was frustrated that some House Democrats tried to hamper USDA's ability to deliver assistance to farmers - in effect, as he said during the hearing, using farmers as pawns in a political struggle.
But the Texas Republican was also angered that Peterson and other Democrats on the committee were trying to take credit for keeping the CCC language in the stopgap.
"It's ironic that as news was released about the budget deal some are implying that the House Democratic leadership is somehow to be thanked, apparently for failing to follow through on the threat to do serious harm to rural America," Conaway said in a statement released Thursday, during the hearing.
"That's akin to Texans thanking Santa Anna for making Texas a Republic. The good news is the Democrats failed in their effort to use our hard-working farm and ranch families as pawns in their obsessive vendetta against the president."
That perspective annoyed Vela, a fellow member of the Agriculture Committee.
"Our caucus doesn't need to be lectured by a racist Christian pretender who led the effort to starve America's poor," Vela tweeted, referring to Conaway's partisan push, as House Agriculture chairman last year, to use the farm bill to make cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. "Every Democratic member of this committee championed the efforts to protect [trade aid payments] in this week's CR negotiations."
Vela confirmed to POLITICO the tweet was aimed at Conaway. Asked if he had spoken with Conaway since the tweet was sent, Vela said: "He hasn't talked to me yet - but I can't wait until he tries to."
Conaway wasn't aware of Vela's tweet until it was showed to him by a POLITICO reporter.
"So he's anti-rural America as well?" Conaway said, after initially declining to comment.
"All I said was that rural America and production agriculture has been held hostage and taken as a pawn by Democratic leadership," he added. "If that's untrue, I'd be happy to have that conversation; but it is true, so I'm not sure what he got mad about."