U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler resigned last week from one agriculture trading-related subcommittee but remains on the main Senate Agriculture Committee. She is also serving on President Donald Trump’s Opening Up America Again congressional group focused on post-COVID-19 pandemic economic recovery.
Citing her business experience, farm upbringing and conservative views, Loeffler is touting several measures to aid farmers and promote a fair marketplace for U.S.-grown produce. Appointed by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to succeed now-retired Sen. Johnny Isakson, Loeffler joined the Senate as a Republican in January but is one of more than 10 candidates contending in a Nov. 3 special election for the seat.
She grew up on a farm in Illinois, holds a Master of Business Administration in international finance and has worked for several financial services firms. Most recently, before resigning to accept the Senate appointment, Loeffler was CEO of Bakkt, an Atlanta-based subsidiary of Intercontinental Exchange, which owns the New York Stock Exchange.
“I think farmers can see I’m going to continue to champion them at every step of the way,” Loeffler told the Statesboro Herald. “I have announced a number of measures I’ve taken, just in my four months in the Senate, to champion the needs of farmers.”
That was late in a phone interview Friday, after she was asked about her resignation from the Commodities, Risk Management and Trade Subcommittee. Critics had asserted that the committee has oversight of some trading on markets operated by Intercontinental Exchange, where Loeffler’s husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, remains CEO.
“Look, this is a Washington process story,” Loeffler said. “I’ve taken this off the table for my political opponents who want to attack every move, but farmers know I’m working for them and going to continue to advocate for them for the hard work that they’re doing. Agriculture is a core element of my USA RISE plan and … I’ve worked the fields, I know the risks that farmers take every day, to put their business on the line, and I know we need to continue to advocate to support our farmers.”
At the beginning of the interview, Loeffler confirmed she was sending a letter to Gregg Doud, chief agricultural negotiator in the United States Trade Representative’s office, or USTR, asking that a field hearing originally scheduled for April in Valdosta be rescheduled.
The hearing would focus on how the dumping of cheap imported produce into the U.S. market threatens American farmers’ livelihoods. But the event was cancelled because of COVID-19 prohibitions. Loeffler wants it to be rescheduled as soon as possible.
“We’re blessed in Georgia with a diversity of fruit and vegetable production,” she said. “But at the same time, we’re also held to a high standard and our farmers work very hard to produce these products and pay the farm labor they have, to have the environmentally compliant equipment … and are competing on an unlevel playing field, and so we want to make sure that the issues that our farmers see in the market are addressed.”
Loeffler is now cosponsoring, with other senators, the Defending Domestic Produce Act of 2019. She said this legislation would make it easier for farmers to file complaints directly with the Commerce Department and the International Trade Commission about dumping of underpriced, imported produce into the domestic market. Introduced last year by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, the bill remains in the Finance Committee.
‘USA RISE’ plan
But Loeffler’s largest platform for economic initiatives is the USA RISE Plan, her own proposals as part of the Opening Up America Again group. She has made RISE an acronym for Restoring and Igniting the Strength of our Economy, and the plan has four pillars.
These are mostly designed to pick up where the more than $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act leaves off.
With the “Made in the USA” pillar, Loeffler advocates for a tax incentive package “to bring manufacturing back to the U.S.”
She is also calling for elimination of payroll taxes for employers for the remainder of 2020.
Asked if Social Security and Medicare can survive that kind of a break in revenue, she noted that the proposal would extend an existing payroll tax break created by the CARES Act and would apply only “to the employer piece.” In other words, employee side of the tax would continue to be withheld.
‘Grown in the USA’
Only the second pillar, “Grown in the USA,” relates specifically to agriculture. One element calls for evaluating CARES Act provisions to ensure maximum “impact to support and sustain our nation’s food supply.”
“We have passed, within the CARES Act, over $24 billion in relief specifically for farmers, in terms of both direct payments and ag purchases, so on that point, let’s get that money flowing as quickly as possible,” Loeffler said.
Her summary also contains a reference to trade deals and asserts a need “to hold Chinese government accountable and ensure fair trade.”
Another element would create an Agricultural Alliance “to connect food banks and grocers with American farmers, remove red tape and create continuous flow of produce.”
Unemployment vs. PPP
Under her “Hiring in the USA” rubric, Loeffler opposes further mandated expansion of unemployment insurance. Instead, she favors “offering states flexibility to use supplemental federal unemployment funds to keep employees connected to jobs,” her summary stated.
Besides special, pandemic emergency unemployment benefits, the CARES Act funded the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP.
Currently, the COVID-19 unemployment benefits add $600 to the regular state benefit.
Meanwhile, the PPP, administered by the Small Business Administration through banks and other private lenders, provides loans to employers for payroll and other expenses. Up to eight weeks of the loans are forgivable as grants for those that keep people employed through the COVID-19 slowdown.
“From what I’ve heard from many, many businesses of all sizes, but particularly from small businesses, they’re now having to compete with unemployment payments to get those employees back and to open their doors and to qualify for PPP,” Loeffler said. “So what we don’t want to do is provide a disincentive for those that can stay in the workforce, that can stay connected to the employer, and importantly, to their benefits.”
Making current tax cuts for “working and middle class families” permanent and cutting business tax rates for two years are also among her “Hiring in the USA” positions.
The fourth pillar, “Families in the USA,” advocates targeted relief to working families with dependent children and expanded funding for the Victims of Child Abuse program.