Ranking Member Bishop Statement at Subcommittee Markup of 2024 Agriculture-Rural Development-FDA Funding Bill

2023-05-18 10:30

Congressman Sanford D. Bishop, Jr. (D-GA-02), Ranking Member of the Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, delivered the following remarks at the Subcommittee's markup of the 2024 funding bill:

Good morning, and thank you, Chairman Harris.

For the past couple of years when I woke up in the morning on markup day for this subcommittee, I often reminded myself of the biblical admonition “this is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” That is because when we came to mark up this bill over the last several years, I was able to say that work done by the agencies we were funding would touch the lives of every American.

I often say that this bill helps to ensure that America has the highest quality, the safest, the most abundant, the most affordable, food and fiber, medicine and medical devices anywhere in the industrialized world.

This bill is also the means – and I was always excited because it would give us the opportunity – and this bill is the vehicle by which our rural America, our rural communities, the heartland of our nation, are supported.

Rural America – north, south, east, west, small towns, sparsely populated areas actually produce most of the food and fiber that all of us consume. Yet, 92% of rural America is persistent poverty counties, low tax bases, high unemployment, lack of access to health care services, and this is true more in red counties than in blue.

So, I am concerned today as I come here because it is very difficult, despite my faith, to rejoice in this markup because today this bill turns its back on rural America. It is a retreat from our most vulnerable communities. This bill really makes it more difficult to implement the purpose and to have a level playing field for all Americans.

Over the past two decades our country and the agriculture industry has grown. Yet, this bill would return America’s agriculture back to 2006 funding levels – with an allocation of $17.1 billion, nearly $8 billion below last year’s enacted bill.

For the past two years, USDA has been working hard to implement policies and making investments that America’s farmers, rural communities, and families have been promised. And they are really counting on us to continue to help rebuild from the pandemic, countless natural disasters, and other challenges outside of their control.

This subcommittee has provided the resources in the past to jump start these efforts, but the bill today would take away food assistance from women and children, from vulnerable people, veterans and seniors, people with health conditions that make it difficult for them to consistently work. It calls for new work requirements.

It calls for new work requirements for SNAP recipients, which exacerbates the cycle of poverty – particularly in rural communities. SNAP recipients who can work, do work. Yet those in rural communities do not often earn enough to escape poverty, particularly for those with limited job opportunities and for those whose employers cut their hours.

America cannot thrive if Americans are hungry, and this bill affects 6 million of our fellow Americans who will lose SNAP benefits due to the increased work requirements.

It takes food out of the mouths of nearly 5 million hungry women and children by rescinding $500 million in WIC funding and underfunding the account for 2024. Since the late 1990’s, the appropriations committees’ bipartisan practice has been to provide enough funds for WIC to serve all eligible applicants. This bill limits USDA’s ability to do this.

It also reduces the levels for WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers by $1.2 billion – hurting both families and farmers. Nearly 4.6 million women and children would lose benefits reduced in FY 2024. That is 4.6 million people that American farmers will not be able to feed and $1.2 billion of lost revenue to farmers.

While I often say food is medicine, and it is, we must make sure we have safe prescription drugs and medical devices. They are crucial to the wellbeing of our loved ones. When supply chains are broken, or safety is compromised, the cost is dire – not just in dollars, but in lives lost. We must provide the resources for a robust inspection regime to hold domestic and foreign manufacturers accountable.

This bill, as you have heard, strips the Secretary of Agriculture of the discretionary use of Commodity Credit Corporation funding.

Just yesterday, the Subcommittee received a letter from Secretary Vilsack announcing his intention to use the CCC authority to provide emergency grain storage in Kentucky and at least nine other states hit by severe weather.

His letter cites several of the provisions blocked by the language in the House bill.

The CCC is a tool to benefit agriculture producers, no matter which party is in the White House. The only folks that suffer when any administration is not allowed to use the CCC at its discretion are our ag producers.

The majority is also eliminating nearly $2 billion in FSA farm loan modification assistance to distressed borrowers in immediate danger of losing their farm operations. To date, the Department has been able to help keep more than 20,000 farmers in business through this initiative. Including nearly 5000 farmers in Texas, Maryland, and Alabama, and other states represented by the majority. Why do you want to put farmers and ranchers out of business? How can you justify allowing hard working farmers to go into foreclosure right as we are coming out of the pandemic and just recovering from the floods, the wildfires, the hurricanes, typhoons, and droughts.

We cannot cynically retreat from rural America when Congress has been a steadfast partner to help it grow. Rural America is the cornerstone of this country’s agriculture industry.

These communities rely on crucial infrastructure, from water and wastewater systems to high-speed internet, yet these projects have huge up-front costs that their smaller tax base cannot bear alone.

Community facilities grants are cut by this bill, 90%, stopping the progress in bringing affordable health care to underserved, rural communities.

For example, this bill includes a 30% cut to rural water and waste disposal loans and a 36% cut to waste disposal grants. That is 325 projects for rural water and wastewater systems that will not happen. That is thousands of families not sure if they will be able to turn on the spigot and get clean water to drink.

The bill also eliminates funding for the Distressed Communities program, which means hundreds of small local governments will not be able to renovate their systems to meet EPA standards for getting arsenic and lead out the drinking water.

And the nearly 30% cut to single family direct housing loans – from $1.25 billion in FY23 to $900 million in FY24 – will make it harder for rural Americans to afford to buy a house. This means that over 2800 rural families will not be able to get financing to pay for their home.

And this is not just going to impact my constituents in Middle and Southwest Georgia. These programs serve rural communities across the country.

  • Maryland received a combined $23.4 million in rural water grants and loans;
  • Alabama received $26.2 million;
  • Iowa received $133.8 million;
  • and Michigan received $144.1 million.
  • Washington state received $32.9 million in single family housing loans;
  • Louisiana received $35.3 million;
  • Virginia received $65.5 million;
  • and California received $167.3 million.

The bill also rescinds $500 million from the Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) just before the House Agriculture Committee begins drafting the Farm Bill. Farmers face high input costs, and the majority is limiting the reach of this program which helps them lower their energy bills with energy efficient projects.

Rural Electric Cooperatives across this country help close the gap in our power grid, stepping in to ensure rural communities have access to affordable energy. Over 900 rural electric cooperatives serve 42 million people across 48 states – including 92% of persistent poverty counties – those who can least afford to build and maintain this crucial infrastructure.

Yet, this bill would slash $3.25 billion in funding for these non-profit electric co-ops. This bill will directly result in a huge rate hike for the people these co-ops serve. Why would you cut this funding as electric co-ops are just gearing up to use the program?

Let me just talk a little bit about riders.

This bill, as you have heard, reverses the 2023 FDA decision to permanently make mifepristone available over the counter. It infringes on women’s rights to make their own decisions regarding their reproductive health choices.

This blocks the rule making – all rule-making – regarding the GIPSA issue. Small poultry producers who are getting killed by the large companies.

No funds for critical race theory related work – what in the tarnation does critical race theory have to do with what we are doing here today? Absolutely nothing.

It blocks the Biden executive orders on diversity, equality, and inclusion and support for underserved community that were designed to create equal opportunity for all Americans to access the USDA programs.

USDA has a long and storied history of discrimination. It is unquestioned. Yet this bill would undermine the efforts to try to equalize opportunity for access to everyone.

This bill is also petty. It blocks funding for the Office of Communication of the Secretary of Agriculture because of a press release he put out on the debt limit. This is absolutely ridiculous.

This bill should be a vehicle by which we help Americans from all walks of life, but what is here before us today does not meet the moment.

Our farmers, producers, and rural communities deserve a more reliable partner in this committee and in this Congress. Too much is at stake – from the food we eat, to the medicine and medical devices on which we rely, and the fiber and materials that help clothe and build our country, and our national security. Americans deserve better. We can do better. We are better than this. The American people deserve better.

It is my hope that we can come together in this committee between now and the end of this appropriations process, that we can sit down and reasonably look forward at how we can help the American people, not hurt them, how we can preserve and cause our rural communities to thrive.

Never in this country should we be satisfied so that a child, or a family, or a small business that has its potential limited and its opportunities curtailed simply because it is located in a RFD zip code. We should not condone that, and this subcommittee responsible for addressing it.

We need to do our jobs. We need to take care of the American people. And, I believe, that if we reasonably look to each other – and I appreciate the fact that the chairman has been willing to sit down and talk about it – but I hope that we can find some middle ground because this bill does not meet the challenges with which the American people are faced. We need to do better.

I yield back.

118th Congress