United States Capitol Building on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, USA a panoramic view

A panoramic view of United States Capitol Building on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, USA.

House leaders hope to reform the meatpacking industry and expand rural internet access to help farmers recover from a difficult year.

The still-raging coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated problems with low commodity prices and amplified discontent with large corporations that dominate food processing, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told National Farmers Union members on Tuesday during a virtual lobbying event that replaced the group’s fall fly-in.

Congress has already appropriated billions in virus-related aid to farmers through several programs. The most notable, USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, has provided $10 billion to 600,000 farms.

“Without these government payments, we’d be in big hurt,” said Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the chairman of the Agriculture Committee.

USDA plans to make more relief payments at some point, and Republicans and Democrats have traded accusations about who’s holding up the next sweeping stimulus bill.

But lawmakers are also looking at regulatory changes that could prevent recurrences of this spring’s market upheavals, reduce the nation’s dependence on China, and remove barriers to farm profitability.

Meatpacking appears particularly ripe for retooling after major packing plants temporarily closed or slowed production this spring because of worker illness. In some cases, hogs were euthanized on the farm because of the resulting backlogs.

Peterson is hoping to give the secretary of agriculture the authority to use the Commodity Credit Corp. to provide assistance in such situations, though he’s still working on the details.

He also wants to find ways to attract U.S. investment to domestic meatpacking plants.

“The Brazilians and the Chinese own more of this processing than Americans,” Peterson said, pointing to the foreign ownership of JBS and Smithfield Foods. “This is not a good situation, and it shouldn’t be how things are in the United States.”

Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, the only Republican lawmaker in the Farmers Union meeting, has introduced a bill to expand USDA’s role in reviewing major foreign investments for national security threats.

A federal interagency committee already investigates big transactions in defense, aerospace and telecommunication.

Adding the secretary of agriculture to that committee would make sure that agriculture deals — such as a foreign company buying a big stake in a large meatpacker — receive proper scrutiny, Lucas said.

Pelosi also wants to ensure that meat companies take the appropriate steps to protect their workers from the virus. Plant employees have already filed several lawsuits alleging inadequate precautions.

Employers deserve liability protection if workers get sick, but only if the companies follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, Pelosi said. And she wants those standards elevated in response to the pandemic.

“When we tell people they’re essential and they have to go to work, we have to make it safe for them to go to work,” Pelosi said.

At the same time, Peterson and Lucas both hope to provide funding to expand the availability of small federally inspected meat processors.

Such small plants, which often cater to direct-marketing farmers, saw an increase in demand this spring when the big packers had problems.

Rural broadband also looks to be a key part of lawmakers’ ag recovery plans — due, in no small part, to the number of people trying to work and learn from home during the pandemic.

Peterson would like to modify the Universal Service Fund — the still-existing program that helped extend phone service into rural America — to channel money to rural areas that have no broadband access.

That’s a different approach than has been used in the past. During the Great Recession, Congress provided $9 billion for broadband, but Peterson said that money was mostly plowed into existing systems, not used to provide service to new areas.

“We have spent so much money on broadband that has been wasted that I am sick and tired of this,” Peterson said.

Bringing high-speed internet to every household in the country is also a major goal in House Republicans’ Commitment to America, their fall agenda released Tuesday.

Republicans say the broadband expansion would be part of a five-year drive to fix roads, bridges and airports while cutting the permitting process by half.

Pelosi also envisions broadband being part of a major infrastructure plan, but the Democratic plan would include an emphasis on renewable energy and other strategies to combat climate change.