Ranking Member Bishop Statement at the Full Committee Markup of the 2024 Agriculture-Rural Development-FDA Funding Bill

2023-06-14 10:49

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

Thank you very much, madam Chair. Good morning, and thank you, Chairman Harris.

As I said in the subcommittee markup, for the past couple of years, when I woke up in the morning of 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 markup this bill over the last several years, I was able to say that the work done by the agencies we were funding would touch the lives of every single American in a positive way.

I often say that this bill helps to ensure that America has the highest quality, the safest, the most abundant, and 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 the bill is the vehicle by which 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 rural America, and persistent poverty counties, have low tax bases, high unemployment, lack of access to healthcare services, water and water systems, and other quality of life conditions not faced by urban and suburban communities. 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. The bill really makes it more difficult to implement the missions of USDA and to have a level playing field for all Americans.

Over the past two decades, our country and the agriculture industry have grown. Yet this bill would return America’s agriculture back to 2007 funding levels – with an allocation of $17.8 billion, nearly $8 billion below last year’s enacted bill – if you cut through the shell game of recissions and repurposing that the bill employs, the budget gimmicks if you will.

For the past two years, USDA has been working hard to implement policies and has been making investments that America’s farmers, rural communities and families have been promised. And they are really counting on us to continue to help to rebuild and recover from the pandemic, from 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, seniors, people with health conditions that make it difficult for them to consistently work.

America cannot thrive if Americans are hungry.

This bill 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 1990s, the Appropriations Committee’s 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 level for WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers by $1.2 billion dollars, hurting both family and farmers. Nearly in 4.6 million women and children will lose benefits or have them reduced in FY24. 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 that food is medicine, and it is, we must make sure we have safe prescription drugs and medical devices. They are the 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 FDA with the resources for a robust inspection regime to hold both domestic and foreign drug manufacturers accountable. This bill falls short.

This bill strips the Secretary of Agriculture of the discretionary use of the Commodity Credit Corporation funding. Just recently, 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 that were hit by severe weather. His letter cites several of the provisions that would be blocked by the language in this House bill.

The CCC is a tool put in law 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 agriculture producers.

The majority is eliminating nearly $2 billion 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 5,000 farmers in Texas, Maryland, and Alabama and other states represented by the majority. Why would 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, the typhoons and the droughts.

We cannot cynically retreat from rural America when Congress has to be 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 bases cannot bear alone.

Community facilities grants are cut 90% by this bill, stopping the progress in bringing affordable healthcare 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 upgrade their water systems to meet EPA standards for getting arsenic and lead out of their 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 2,800 rural families will not be able to get the 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 last year, Alabama – $26.2 million, Iowa received $133.8 million, Michigan – $144.1 million, Washington State – $32.9 million in single-family housing loans, Louisiana received $65.5 million, and California received $167.3 million.

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

Rural electric co-operatives across the country help close the gap in our power grid, stepping in to ensure rural communities have access to affordable energy. Over 900 rural electric co-operatives serve 42 million people across 48 states, including persistent poverty counties – those who can least afford to build and maintain this crucial infrastructure. Yet this bill will slash $1 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? Why would you cut this funding as electric co-ops are just gearing up to use this program.

Let me talk just a little bit about riders.

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

This blocks the rulemaking – all rulemaking – regarding the GIPSA issue under the Packers and Stockyards Act. Small poultry producers are getting killed by the large companies with unfair contracting practices.

This bill has a rider saying that no funds for critical race theory-related work can be utilized. What in tarnation is critical race theory? There is no definition of what is actually being prohibited. This is just a dog-whistle to evoke an irrational response to something that does not even exist. No one can define it.

This bill – the riders – locks the Biden executive orders on diversity, equity, and inclusion and support for underserved communities were designed to create an equal opportunity for all Americans to have access to USDA programs – race, gender, national origin. USDA has a long and storied history of discrimination. It is unquestioned. Yet this bill would undermine the efforts to try to equalize the opportunity for access to everyone to USDA programs.

This bill is also petty. It has a rider that blocks funding for the Office of Communication of the Secretary of Agriculture because of a press release he put out describing the impact of the Republican bill on the debt limit. This is absolutely ridiculous. It is retaliatory and it is petty.

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 the medical devices on which we rely, and the fiber and the materials that help clothe and build our country and preserve our national security.

Americans deserve better. We can do better. We are better than this. And the American people must have us perform better.

It is my hope that we can come together 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 – and how we can preserve and cause our rural communities to thrive.

Never in this country should we be satisfied to allow a child, or a family, or a small business to have its potential limited and its opportunities curtailed simply because it is located in an RFD Zip Code. We should not condone that, and this subcommittee and this Congress is responsible for addressing it.

I appreciate the hard work, the congenial spirit of Chairman Harris, Chairwoman Granger, Ranking Member DeLauro, the majority and the minority staffs, and our personal staffs. We want, I believe, to do what is best for our country, but we need to do our jobs. We need to take care of the American people.

I want to believe that all of us want the best for our country. 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 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. We must do better. This is not a good work product and I urge us to improve this bill or to defeat it.

I yield back.


118th Congress