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As billions flow to farmers, White House faces internal concerns over bailout

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Sonny Perdue
Sonny Perdue, U.S. secretary of agriculture, during a Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee hearing in Washington on Feb. 28, 2019. Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer.
 

WASHINGTON — Senior government officials, including some in the White House, privately expressed concern that the Trump administration's nearly $30 billion bailout for farmers needed stronger legal backing, according to multiple people who participated in the planning.

The bailout was created by the Trump administration as a way to try and calm outrage from farmers who complained they were caught in the middle of the White House's trade war with China. In an attempt to pacify farmers, the Department of Agriculture created an expansive new program without precedent.

As part of the program, USDA authorized $12 billion in bailout funds last year and another $16 billion this year, and Trump has said more money could be on the way.

But two USDA officials involved in the bailout program told The Washington Post they were worried the funding could surpass the original intent of the New Deal-era Commodity Credit Corporation, which is being used to distribute the money. The CCC had previously been used only to create substantially more limited programs. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid professional repercussions.

Separately, some officials in the Office of Management and Budget also raised questions about the scope of $16 billion in a second round of bailout funds. They pushed the Department of Agriculture to provide more legal reasoning for the effort, the officials said. In a statement, a USDA spokesman officials said the concerns raised by OMB were already resolved, however.

USDA attorneys have signed off on the bailout package, and the government has already issued more than $11 billion in farm bailout payments. More will be spent soon.

The concerns come at a crucial time for the program, as many farmers are relying on the funding, and congressional approval is required because the White House is nearing an annual $30 billion cap on CCC payments.

Independent legal experts agree that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has broad authority to unilaterally help farmers, including through the administration's bailout program.

The bailout funds are part of the White House's effort to contain an outcry from farmers who have complained that China and other countries have cut back on U.S. purchases in retaliation for the higher tariffs Trump has imposed on a range of imports.

As U.S. soybean exports have fallen, Brazil has stepped in and increased its exports, worrying U.S. farmers that a global realignment has taken place that will be hard to reverse.

Trump has tried to assuage concerned farmers by approving the two rounds of bailout funds, and he repeatedly tells farm groups that his adversarial approach to trade will prove a huge win for them in the future.

"As they have learned in the last two years, our great American Farmers know that China will not be able to hurt them in that their President has stood with them and done what no other president would do — And I'll do it again next year if necessary!" President Donald Trump tweeted in August.

Trump has touted his financial support for farmers, but administration officials have said little publicly about internal consternation over the process.

White House aides are for the first time pressing Congress to increase how much the administration can distribute through the farm bailout before hitting the program's legal spending limit this fall, even though farmers have already been promised billions in additional bailout funding.

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