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Agri-Pulse: House Ag debates spending plan, Dems rebuff GOP attacks over stepped-up basis

AGRI-PULSE, PHILIP BRASHER, STEVE DAVIES

The House Agriculture Committee on Friday debated $66 billion in new spending for agricultural research, renewable energy and forestry over strenuous objections of Republicans, who used the deliberations to highlight President Joe Biden’s proposal to increase taxes on inherited assets.

Votes on the Democratic measure and 30 GOP amendments were postponed until Monday morning.

Missing from the legislation was $28 billion in conservation spending that committee Chairman David Scott, D-Ga., said would be added to the measure before  it is considered on the House floor. Scott said the omission was due to delays in getting cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office. He didn't provide any details of the conservation title.

The combined, $94 billion measure is to be folded into a much larger $3.5 trillion tax and spending package that congressional Democrats are putting together to carry out Biden’s Build Back Better plan.

The amendments that Republicans offered during a nine-hour marathon meeting included several that sought to put Democrats on record in opposition to Biden’s proposal to tax capital gains at death, creating a tax on intergenerational transfers and effectively nullifying the benefit of stepped-up basis.

While fighting the GOP amendments, Scott repeatedly assured Republicans that he also opposes the tax proposal, which is under the purview of the House Ways and Means Committee, not Agriculture. Scott sent a letter to the White House in June warning Biden that the tax liability could be a "significant burden" on farms.

He said the tax proposal would be “devastating” to farmers and tried to assure Republicans that fellow Democrats were privately working to head it off. “We have enough Democrats on our side that we can make a difference” in the internal negotiations over the tax provisions, he said.

Scott repeatedly ruled out of order GOP amendments that sought to force a vote on the transfer tax proposal.

The amendments included one proposed by Kansas Republican Tracey Mann, who appeared on the online hearing from a sorghum field in his home state. He said the committee needed to go on record on the issue. 

The Ag Committee's top Republican, Glenn "GT" Thompson of Pennsylvania, said "hard-working men and women that feed, clothe, and power our nation and the world will be irreparably harmed if the president's ramped-up death tax is allowed to become law."

The Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committee have yet to release the revenue provisions needed to offset the cost of the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill.

The online committee deliberations were repeatedly disrupted by snafus, some technical and others due to members' inattention. Scott had to stall the vote on one tax-related amendment because one Democrat had voted the wrong way and others hadn't voted at all. At another point, a Republican who was simultaneously participating in a second committee meeting, mistakenly announced her vote there on the Ag Committee feed. 

The GOP amendments also sought among other things to eliminate increases in climate change research, ensure that methane digesters would be eligible for funding under the Rural Energy for America Program,  and eliminate or redirect $2.25 billion in funding for a Civilian Climate Corps.

Republicans such as Doug LaMalfa of California argued that a CCC is not needed, as the Forest Service already has a Job Corps that is helping to train future silviculturists. But Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., argued that the threat of climate change is precisely why a CCC is necessary.

In general, Democrats opposing the Republican amendments said the concerns with the bill they were addressing were already addressed through funding in the bill or would be addressed in other measures, including the bipartisan infrastructure bill that has yet to be considered by the House.

Democrats also rejected proposals to direct funding toward battling the introduction of African swine fever, a disease that could devastate the U.S. pork industry. Although the amendments were defeated, Rep. Jim Costa, the California Democrat who chairs the Livestock and Foreign Agriculture Subcommittee, promised to hold a hearing on the issue this fall. 

The debate was generally civil - until eight hours into the meeting when an angry Democrat interrupted Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga., and then a brief online shouting match erupted over one of several GOP proposals targeting USDA's nutrition assistance spending. Later, Reps. Austin Scott, R-Ga., and Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., argued over the value of pandemic food aid. 

At other points, GOP members said they were frustrated by the lack of hearings before the committee meeting. 

Republicans also pushed to have the meeting delayed until Sept. 20, but Democrats succeeded in moving forward with the meeting on a 26-24, party-line vote. 

The Agriculture Committee measure contains $7.75 billion for agricultural research aimed at addressing climate change, including $2.6 billion for USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture, which funds research at colleges and universities. Another $540 million that would go to the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, which combines funding from USDA with private research dollars. 

Some $18 billion is designated for rural development programs, $9.7 billion of which would go to rural electric cooperatives and rural communities for renewable energy.

Nearly $3.9 billion would be designated for a Rural Partnership Program that would help rural communities plan and implement development projects. Some $2.6 billion is earmarked for USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program, which provides grants and loans for energy efficiency improvements. An additional $960 million is designated for biofuel infrastructure.

The largest share of funding under the Agriculture Committee’s provisions, $40 billion, would go toward forestry programs designed to help prevent wildfires and improve forest health.

Separately Friday, the House Education and Labor Committee approved its portion of the reconciliation package that includes $35 billion in child nutrition spending. 

The Education and Labor provisions would allow another 9 million kids to receive free school meals while also making low-income children nationwide eligible for $75 a month in nutrition assistance when they are out of school during the summer. The legislation would earmark $634 million for nutrition education and school gardens and another $500 million to fund the purchase new school kitchen equipment.