Senate GOP Introduces Pandemic Relief Bill

National Farmers Union

On Monday, more than two months after the U.S. House of Representatives passed its pandemic relief bill, Senate Republicans introduced their own version, the Heath, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act. The last major stimulus bill was passed in late March; some of its most significant provisions have already expired, will expire within days, or have run out of funding.

Of the $1 trillion provided by the proposal, $23.5 billion is earmarked for agriculture. Most of that – $20.457 billion – is allocated to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus by providing support for agricultural producers, growers, and processors impacted by coronavirus.”
Significantly smaller sums are provided to support salaries and expenses at several U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies, including the Farm Service Agency (FSA), Rural Development (RD), the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Though it offers a modest amount to cover the administrative costs of nutrition assistance programs, it neither expands the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), nor does it extend the Pandemic EBT program, which offered nutrition assistance to families whose children lost access to free or reduced-price meals following school closures.
In contrast, the House’s relief bill would offer about $33 billion worth of support for agriculture, including $16.5 billion in direct payments for farmers. It also increases SNAP’s maximum level by 15% and doubles the minimum benefit from $15 to $30 per month.
In a statement, National Farmers Union president Rob Larew expressed appreciation for the additional support provided by the HEALS Act, but urged “congressional oversight of and greater transparency about how and to whom assistance is offered” in order “to ensure that the funding earmarked by the bill is fairly and equitably distributed.” Additionally, he emphasized the need to boost SNAP, citing the fact that “thirty million Americans are out of work, causing food insecurity to double over the last several months.” Because the program is “an effective, low-cost, and flexible way to help hungry Americans feed their families,” he urged Congress to expand benefits “so that it can adequately serve everyone who needs it.”
On top of its food and agricultural provisions, the HEALS Act has a number of other elements that could have significant implications for family farmers and rural Americans. For one, it would issue another round of $1,200 stimulus checks to those making less than $75,000 per year. Payments would decrease gradually for individuals earning more than $75,000, with the eligibility cutoff at $99,000. On the other hand, it would amend federal unemployment benefits, reducing weekly payments from $600 to $200.
The bill would also extend the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), with some adjustments. Perhaps most importantly, it would allow existing PPP borrowers to apply for a second loan. Second-time borrowers would have to meet more stringent requirements than first-time borrowers, and loans would be restricted to firms with fewer than 300 employees that have experienced at least a 50 percent reduction in gross revenue. Furthermore, it would improve the loan calculation approach; currently, most farmers and ranchers cannot receive a PPP loan if they show net negative income on their Form 1040, Schedule F, which disqualified many producers. Under HEALS, covered farmers and ranchers may instead use their 2019 gross income, capped at $100,000.

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