Democrat-Controlled House to Vote on Two Immigration Bills

Posted on 03/18/2021 8:15 AM

Vilsack signals USDA farm program design may be creating racial inequities


In Today’s Digital Newspaper


Market Focus:
• Fed up: Federal Reserve predicts a V-shaped recovery as some naysayers surface
• USDA daily export sale: 696,000 MT corn to China 2020-2021 marketing year
• IRS delays tax-filing deadline to May 17
• Has global gas demand peaked?
• Bank of England: no changes and no tightening until 'significant progress' is made

• First-time claims for jobless benefits showed unexpected jump higher to 770,000
• Walt Disney will reopen Disneyland and Disney California Adventure parks April 30
• Brazil on Wednesday became first major economy to raise interest rates this year
• Supply-chain woes hitting companies world-wide
• Analyst: cost of shipping goods across oceans and air routes may stay high
• Coinbase, cryptocurrency exchange, valued at $68 billion
• Ag demand update

Consultancy trims EU + UK wheat export forecast as Chinese demand fades
• Russia mulls hiking export taxes on several oilseeds
• German pig prices stabilize, with support coming from several fronts
• EU to take a regionalized approach to poultry imports from Ukraine


Policy Focus:
• House to vote today on two immigration bills
• Vilsack signals USDA farm program design may be creating racial inequities


Biden Administration Personnel

• Senate confirms, 98-0, Katherine Tai as USTR
• Biden nominates Jose W. Fernandez to serve as undersecretary of State
• DOJ nominees


China Update:
• Weekly net sales of corn to China rose ahead of big daily sales announced this week
• China's top diplomat to U.S. Cui Tiankai to stay on: SCMP
• Two Canadians detained in China get their day in court
• U.S. and Chinese officials meet in Anchorage, Alaska
• Resurgence of African swine fever during winter months
• China says it sow herd still growing, despite industry reports to contrary
• Chinese pork imports running well above last year’s impressive showing
• Reuters: China to set plan to trim soymeal, corn in feed rations
• Dramatic year-to-year increases in China’s grain imports


Energy & Climate Change:

WSJ commentary: Biden’s ‘backdoor’ climate plan
• CFTC establishes unit on climate risks

Food & Beverage Industry Update:
• Vilsack again signals continuation of Food Box effort with changes
• Tyson Foods says 15,000 of its workers vaccinated at 30 vaccine sites

Coronavirus Update:
• Europe’s drugs regulator reports on safety of AstraZeneca’s vaccine
• U.S. vaccine deployment updates  
• Fauci, Walensky to testify on virus response  
• U.S. to give $10 billion to schools for Covid-19 testing
• WHO-led team of scientists had little power to conduct thorough examination in Wuhan


Politics & Elections:
• House Republicans vote by secret ballot to support earmarks
• McConnell threatens to blow up the Senate to preserve legislative filibuster rule
• Republicans say Biden broke law on border wall

Other Items of Note:
• North Korea rules out U.S. talks
• Russian ambassador to U.S. summoned to Moscow for consultations
• Treasury asked if states that take aid can cut taxes
• Keystone Pipeline halt prompts red states to sue




Equities today: Global stock markets were mostly higher while U.S. stock indexes are pointed toward mixed to lower openings. U.S. Treasury bond yields are on the rise again and the 10-year Treasury note yield hit 1.74% overnight — the highest level in well over a year. The Nikkei ended up 302.42 points, 1.01%, at 30,216.75. The Hang Seng Index rose 371.60 points, 1.28%, at 29,405.72. European equities are showing gains with the exception of the FTSE which is slightly weaker.


     U.S. equities yesterday: The Dow finished with a gain of 189.42 points, 0.58%, at 33,015,37, its first-ever close above 33,000. The Nasdaq and S&P 500 were lifted into positive territory after the Fed meeting conclusion, with the Nasdaq closing up 53.64 points, 0.40%, at 13,525.20. The S&P 500 gained 11.41 points, 0.29%, at 3,974.12. All three indexes turned higher after the Fed pledged to maintain its easy-money policies and rose further as Fed Chairman Jerome Powell spoke to reporters.


     Even as the U.K. economic outlook brightens, the Bank of England emphasized its high bar for tightening monetary policy in its decision today saying no changes and no tightening until “significant progress” is made, matching a message from the Fed Chair Jay Powell. Meanwhile, reports suggest the Bank of Japan will agree to allow yields to trade in a wider band when it ends a two-day policy meeting on Friday.


On tap today:


     •  European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde speaks to the Delegation for Women's Rights and Equal Opportunities Between Men and Women of the French National Assembly at 7 a.m. ET.
     • Bank of England releases a policy statement at 8 a.m. ET.
     • U.S. jobless claims are expected to fall to 700,000 in the week ended March 13 from 712,000 a week earlier. Follow our coverage here. (8:30 a.m. ET) Update: First-time claims for jobless benefits showed an unexpected jump higher to 770,000 as the labor market tries to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic that sent more than 22 million Americans to the unemployment line a year ago. The economy has added 545,000 jobs so far in 2021, and the unemployment rate has nudged down to 6.2%.
     • Philadelphia Fed's manufacturing survey for March is expected to tick down to 22 from 23.1 a month earlier. (8:30 a.m. ET)
     • USDA Weekly Export Sales report, 8:30 a.m. ET.
     • Conference Board's leading economic index for February is expected to rise 0.3% from a month earlier. (10 a.m. ET)
     • Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell gives closing remarks at a Bank for International Settlements conference at 11:55 a.m. ET.


Federal Reserve predicts a V-shaped recovery. FOMC members raised their median growth estimate for 2021 to 6.5% from 4.2% in December. They predict the current 6.2% jobless rate will fall to 4.5% by year end, down from their 5% estimate in December. Robust growth will continue in 2022 at 3.3% while unemployment falls to 3.9%. This is a V-shaped recovery. Fed analysts predict inflation will finally breach the Fed’s 2% target and hit 2.4% this year. The Fed’s PCE price deflator has risen 2.8% in the last three months at an annual rate. The FOMC forecasts that inflation will fall back modestly and stay at 2% or above through 2023, meaning that any increase in prices will be transitory. (Link for more via special report.)


     Hard-to-believe recovery: The Fed is forecasting that the economy will boom, reaching nearly full employment with inflation at or above its 2% target, but it still won’t tighten monetary policy. The WSJ concludes: “If this all turns out to be true, Milton Friedman will rise from the dead and rewrite his monetary history.”


     Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said current monetary policy is appropriate and there’s no reason to push back against a surge in Treasury yields over the past month. “The stance of monetary policy we have today we believe is appropriate,” Powell said. “We think our asset purchases in their current form — which is to say across the curve, $80 billion in Treasuries, $40 billion in mortgage-backed securities, on net — we think that’s the right place for our asset purchases.”


    Fed dot map


The Internal Revenue Service is delaying the April 15 tax filing deadline to May 17, giving taxpayers additional time to file returns and pay outstanding levies. The IRS set the new deadline on May 17. The $1.9 trillion stimulus law enacted last week exempted the first $10,200 of unemployment income earned for households making under $150,000, meaning that many Americans who already filed their taxes might need to make amendments. Meanwhile, the IRS is also still working through a backlog of 2019 returns on top of implementing a plan for paying out the newly expanded child-tax credit.


     The extended deadline applies only to federal income returns and taxes, meaning that taxpayers will need to check to see if due dates for state taxes have been changed.


Walt Disney will reopen its Disneyland and Disney California Adventure parks on April 30, bringing more than 10,000 cast members back to work. In line with current state guidelines, only California residents may visit the parks for now, and guests will have to obtain a reservation before entry. The company expects an onslaught of demand for the limited number of tickets, one indication of consumers’ urge to resume activities.


Brazil on Wednesday became the first major economy to raise interest rates this year, a harbinger for other developing countries that could be forced to raise borrowing costs and endanger their fragile economies. The central bank’s decision to lift its benchmark lending rate comes as inflation hit a four-year high in Latin America’s biggest economy amid a weakening currency and sharply rising fuel prices. Economists say the tightening monetary policy in Brazil underscores risks for emerging markets: A strong U.S. recovery is prompting a rise in long-term bond yields, which attracts more investors to buy dollars at the expense of emerging-market currencies. That could lead other developing nations to raise their interest rates to stem the capital outflow, stifling the economic rebound those countries are counting on.


     Brazil interest rates


Market perspectives:


     • Outside markets: The U.S. dollar index is firmer early today as the euro has weakened against the greenback. The U.S.’ brighter economic prospects have driven an unexpected dollar rally this year, but some investors are concerned about sharply higher inflation reversing the dollar’s fortunes. The yield on the three-year Treasury note, which encompasses investors’ view of what overnight rates will average over the next three years, dipped following the Fed’s Wednesday meeting, but stands at about 0.3%, compared with 0.17% at the end of last year. The yield on the 10-year US Treasury note has moved slightly higher, trading above 1.74%. Gold and silver futures are slightly higher in trading ahead of the U.S. market day. Gold is trading around $1,727 per troy ounce and gold is around $26.13 per troy ounce.


        Dollar index

     • Crude oil futures are seeing losses ahead of the U.S. trading start, with U.S. crude trading around $64.40 per barrel and Brent around $67.75 per barrel. Crude was under pressure in Asian action, with U.S. crude down 36 cents at $64.24 per barrel and Brent down 41 cents at $67.59 per barrel.


     • Has global gasoline demand peaked? As the shift toward electric vehicles accelerates and fuel efficiency in gas-powered vehicles improves, the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects global gasoline consumption to never reach 2019 levels again, even as demand from developing nations continues to grow. Energy watchers have long debated the timing of the world’s eventual "peak oil" tipping point, and after the pandemic crushed demand last year, industry forecasters have increasingly concluded that day might already have come.


        Peak gas


     • Coinbase, the cryptocurrency exchange, said it had been valued at $68 billion in private markets before its direct listing next week.


     • USDA daily export sale: 696,000 MT corn to China 2020-2021 marketing year


     • There’s no escaping the supply-chain woes hitting companies world-wide. Manufacturers of everything from cars and clothing to home siding and medical needle containers are scrambling, the Wall Street Journal reports (link). The upheaval in supply chains that began with last year’s coronavirus-triggered lockdowns is only growing as global economies rebound while crammed ports, container shortages and severe weather hit operations. Backlogs at U.S. ports that began late last year are likely to persist, with Port of Los Angeles chief Gene Seroka projecting continued strong imports “through the spring and early summer.” The timing is concerning because the U.S. and some other economies are beginning to try to lurch toward normalcy thanks to vaccination campaigns. The WSJ article concludes “the problems show how messy the reopening of business is proving to be a year after pandemic’s onset, and how vulnerable supply chains remain.” The WSJ also reports that Toyota and Honda are halting production at plants in North America because port logjams, freak weather and Covid-19 constraints are limiting availability of key components.




     • Cost of shipping goods across the world’s oceans and air routes may stay high for a year or more as consumer demand stays strong and the already tight supply of capacity to move cargo commands a premium, according to McKinsey & Co. Ludwig Hausmann, a partner in McKinsey’s office in Munich, sees container rates staying high because a now-consolidated liner industry’s past tendencies to wage price wars has “completely vanished so there is more discipline around balancing supply so that it fits demand.” Also, a lot of long-term contracts with shippers have already been agreed for the next year or two — and “that will lock in a higher price.” On air cargo, he says in the past, many smaller airlines operated long-haul planes that added to cargo capacity. Hausmann’s view is that the future will be “more of a professional’s game” involving bigger airlines that don’t allot more aircraft on certain lanes. As a result, the easing of air-freight supply constraints “is also not happening too fast.”


     • Ag demand: Turkey’s state grain bought provisionally purchased around 115,000 MT of corn in an international tender. South Korean flour mills purchased around 50,000 MT of milling wheat to be sourced from the United States. Japan purchased 57,365 MT of food-quality wheat from the United States, as well as 25,820 MT from Canada and 52,418 MT from Australia in a regular tender.


Items in Pro Farmer's First Thing Today include (Link to subscribe to FTT):

     • Consultancy trims EU + UK wheat export forecast as Chinese demand fades
     • Russia mulls hiking export taxes on several oilseeds
     • German pig prices stabilize, with support coming from several fronts
     • EU to take a regionalized approach to poultry imports from Ukraine




—  Democrat-controlled House to vote on two immigration bills that would provide a citizenship path for illegal immigrants and legal status for immigrant farmworkers. Neither bill was taken up in the Senate when it had a Republican majority.


     The American Dream and Promise Act would offer a pathway to citizenship to those who entered the country illegally as children and are currently living in the U.S., also known as “Dreamers.” The same bill would also help immigrants in the country who received temporary migration protections. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.). An estimated 4.4 million illegal immigrants could become eligible for permanent residency if the bill is passed, according to the Migration Policy Institute. In 2019, seven Republicans joined 230 Democrats in the House in voting for the bill.


     The other immigration bill, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, would provide illegal immigrant agricultural workers a path to legal status, and make the H-2A guestworker program more flexible for employers. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and has a Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.). It passed the House in 2019 with the support of 34 Republicans. Undocumented agricultural workers could qualify for a new temporary immigration status or permanent legal status under HR 1603. The bill would also make changes to the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa program, including by setting up a pilot program to allow visa holders to change jobs without a new application process, and would require agricultural employers to use an employment eligibility verification system modeled after E-Verify.


     Bottom line: The two bills reflect a decision by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to adopt a piecemeal approach to immigration amid weak support for a more sweeping proposal from President Joe Biden. While both measures are expected to be passed by the House, the prospects of the more narrowly tailored bills are in question in the Senate that is split 50-50 between the two political parties. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he sees no path to bipartisan solutions on any immigration legislation until the migrant surge is addressed. Meanwhile, reports note that President Biden would soon increase the cap on the number of refugees that would be admitted to the U.S., something Biden promised to do in early February but has yet to follow through on.


— Vilsack signals USDA farm program design may be creating racial inequities. The design of U.S. farm programs to link benefits for the safety net programs to production could be creating racial inequities, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said at a nutrition forum Wednesday.


     Programs based on the level of production could leave out smaller or socially disadvantaged farmers, Vilsack said. “The problem is when you basically compensate on production, the person who's producing more, benefits more,” Vilsack remarked. “So, what does that mean? It means the gap widens.”


     Vilsack said an equality commission established at USDA will take a look at all programs and how they are designed and enacted. He labeled it “perfectly understandable” that farm programs focus on production “because that’s the way it’s always been.” But in a climate of heightened sensitivity on discrimination and equity, Vilsack said it makes sense to focus on broader equity impacts, not just “specific acts of discrimination.”


    Now what? It is not clear what areas of U.S. farm programs that the USDA review will focus on, but no doubt lawmakers who have formulated U.S, farm policy will be tracking the USDA effort closely, likely paying close attention to making sure the USDA attention is on how the programs are enacted as opposed to the underlying legislation that creates the programs.



—  Senate confirms, 98-0, Katherine Tai as USTR. Tai, 46, is the first woman of color to serve as the top U.S. trade negotiator — her parents immigrated from Taiwan. She is a prominent critic of China’s trade practices, signaling that the White House won’t completely walk back the Trump administration’s tough stance. She is the only Asian American woman to be appointed to a Cabinet-level position under Biden. Tai, who was born in Connecticut, speaks fluent Mandarin. She has degrees from Harvard Law School and Yale University. Link to special report on Tai.


— President Biden nominated Jose W. Fernandez to serve as undersecretary of State for economic growth, energy and the environment, as well as in the U.S. alternate governor role for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the Inter-American Development Bank.


— DOJ nominees. The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a business meeting today to consider the nominations of Lisa Monaco, to be deputy attorney general and Vanita Gupta to be associate attorney general. Gupta intends to sell as much as $55 million of stock in a company her father chairs amid questioning about a report the company sold chemicals diverted by Mexican drug cartels to make heroin. Gupta made the pledge in written responses to questions from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) as part of the nomination process. Grassley cited a Bloomberg Businessweek investigation, which found that a chemical Avantor makes, acetic anhydride, was easily diverted by narcotics gangs. Avantor stopped all Mexican and Latin American sales of the chemical after the article was published.




—  Weekly net sales of corn to China rose ahead of big daily sales announced this week. The back-to-back-to-back daily sales of U.S. corn to China announced this week came after fresh weekly business reported in the data for the week ended March 11. For 2020-21, USDA reported net sales to China of 624,847 tonnes of corn, mostly switched from unknown destinations as there were only 12,847 tonnes of new sales reported for the week. Other business included 132,261 tonnes of wheat, 289,175 tonnes of sorghum, 71,526 tonnes of soybeans, and 92,676 running bales of Upland Cotton.


     For 2021-22, sales of 65,000 tonnes of wheat and 24,254 running bales of Upland Cotton were reported.


    Sales of U.S. pork for 2021 totaled 5,672 tonnes and 5,302 tonnes of beef.


     Bottom line: Overall, the report was above expectations for old-crop corn and new-crop wheat, with other sales in line with expectations. However, there were no new-crop soybean sales reported.

— China's top diplomat to U.S. Cui Tiankai to stay on, the South China Morning Post reports, citing diplomatic sources in Beijing. The decision to keep the veteran diplomat in Washington is believed to be part of Beijing’s plans to manage tensions with the new US administration and prepare for confrontational competition over the long term. After nearly eight years in the position, Cui is already the country’s longest-serving ambassador to Washington, and several people with knowledge of the matter, including Chinese diplomats, said Beijing had no plan to replace him any time soon. Cui is in the Alaskan city of Anchorage this week for the first face-to-face dialogue between top American and Chinese diplomats since President Joe Biden took office — see related item below.


— Two Canadians detained in China get their day in court… but China’s court system is far different. Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were arrested in 2018 on charges of spying. They will face trial on March 19 and 22.


— U.S. and Chinese officials meet in Anchorage, Alaska. The sessions are set to be held at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, Alaska, reportedly three three-hour meetings are expected to be held over Thursday and Friday.


     The participants and agenda: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will sit down with China’s foreign minister Wang Yi, and top foreign policy official Yang Jiechi. In their first face-to-face meeting since U.S. president Joe Biden took office, they will discuss several topics: The U.S. and China have clashed in recent years over matters such as technology development, human rights, trade and military leadership in Asia. U.S. officials will likely present their complaints about China’s civil-rights crackdowns in Hong Kong and on intellectual property violations.


      Beijing's agenda is far different. It wants to reverse restrictions on American sales to Chinese firms such as Huawei Technologies and chip maker Semiconductor Manufacturing International, as well as to lift visa limits on Communist Party members, state-media journalists and students. Chinese officials are also seeking to reestablish regular, high-level bilateral meetings that were discontinued by the Trump administration and to schedule a virtual summit on climate change attended by Xi Jinping and President Biden. The Biden-Xi meeting as envisioned by Chinese officials would be organized around Earth Day on April 22 to show both leaders are focused on combating climate change.


     The meeting comes after Blinken made his first overseas visit — to Asian allies including Japan, where he warned China against “aggression and coercion,” and to South Korea. This week, the U.S. sanctioned more Chinese officials over Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong, while Blinken criticized the country’s “strings attached” vaccine diplomacy. For China’s part, Wang recently declared it would not accept “groundless accusations or defamation” from the U.S. No wonder U.S. officials are playing down expectations for the Alaska meeting as a one-off that doesn't represent "the resumption of a particular dialogue mechanism or the beginning of a dialogue process."


— A resurgence of African swine fever during the winter months has interrupted the rebound of China's hog industry, says Dim Sums: Rural China Economics and Policy, which notes the slowdown “cooled off surging corn prices and sent soybean meal prices into a tailspin.” According to surveys conducted by the My Ag Commodities site, sow numbers fell about 3-4% each month in January-February 2021 as hog production capacity suffered losses to varying degrees in regions across China. African swine fever and piglet diarrhea increased death rates, and panicked farmers sent numerous juvenile pigs to the abattoir, contributing to the recent decline in hog prices. With sow numbers declining and piglet prices rising in March, pork supplies are likely to be tight again in six months when the peak consumption season returns.


     Reasons for the resurgence: A veterinary advice column (link) blames the resurgence of ASF on the increased stocking density of animals, extremely cold weather, and appearance of new strains of ASF.


— China says it sow herd still growing, despite industry reports to the contrary. China’s sow herd edged 1% higher from January to February, with the herd now up 34.1% from year-ago, the country’s ag ministry said Thursday. The ag ministry also said that the country’s total sow herd had reached 95% of their levels at the end of 2017, before ASF hit, and that hog inventories remain above 400 million head. Reports of a resurgence of ASF within China holding back its rebuilding efforts (see related item) have increased attention on such updates and made some a bit suspicious of China’s numbers. Shandong-based Yongyi Consulting has estimated that the sow herd has been declining each month since December, including a 4.99% fall in January and a 4.68% decline in February.


— Chinese pork imports running well above last year’s impressive showing. Chinese customs data released today shows the country imported 320,000 MT of pork during February, a 60,000 MT decline from Reuters’ estimate of January imports and a 28.3% jump from year-ago. Two months into the year, China has imported 700,000 MT of pork, a 26.2% rise from 2020 at this time.


—  Reuters: China to set plan to trim soymeal, corn in feed rations. China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs is embarking on an effort to temper the level of corn and soymeal used in animal feed and replace it with alternative grains, according to a report from Reuters citing sources familiar with a document issued by the agency this week. The effort is not expected to be “binding” and so it was not clear how much impact the guidelines being developed would have. The effort would seek to create more balance in the supply and demand situation for feedgrains, and boost use of rice, wheat and other grains along with other meals. An animal nutrition committee is to provide a plan to the Ag Ministry’s animal husbandry and veterinary bureau by March 31 and the plan would be finalized by April 10 before it is made public. The situation comes as trade data has shown a sharp increase in corn imports by China along with other grains, and it comes as the country grappling with fresh cases of African swine fever (ASF) while it is trying to rebuild its hog herd. The Country’s sow herd was up 34.1% in February compared with year-ago levels, up just 1% from January, according to the ministry. The agency also said that the total sow herd was now at 95% of levels seen at the end of 2017 and total hog numbers were still above 400 million.


— Dramatic year-to-year increases in China’s grain imports. China imported 1.78 MMT of corn during February, a dramatic 557% surge from year-ago levels, according to Chinese customs data. Just two months into 2021, China has imported 4.8 MMT of the grain, a 414% surge from year-ago and representing two-thirds of its 7.2 MMT low tariff rate quota (TRQ) for all of 2021. The country also imported 990,000 MT of wheat during February, a 189% surge from year-ago, with year-to-date exports of the grain now at 2.48 MMT, up 265% from 2020 at this time. That represents a quarter of the country’s 9.636 MMT TRQ for wheat in 2021. The country’s cumulative imports of sorghum (1.4 MMT) and barley (1.32 MMT) have also soared 366% and 79%, respectively, relative to last year at this point.





WSJ commentary: Biden’s ‘backdoor’ climate plan. A Wall Street Journal opinion item notes that “Democratic Attorneys General, green groups and a top Biden environmental regulator are colluding on a plan to impose the Green New Deal on states through a back regulatory door because they know they can’t pass it through the front in Congress.” Link for details.


— U.S. derivatives regulator establishes unit on climate risks. The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s (CFTC’s) efforts to keep tabs on Wall Street’s highly profitable derivatives-trading business is getting another focus: risks associated with climate change. The regulator created a unit to assess the asset class’s role in reducing carbon emissions, CFTC Acting Chairman Rostin Behnam said in a statement (link). Besides helping determine how to price risk, the group will work to ensure that new instruments are fairly used for hedging and that they promote transparent markets. Since taking over as acting chair in January, Behnam has focused on issues related to climate change. Last month he called for urgent action as he discussed a CFTC industry advisory group report in which JPMorgan Chase, BP and other companies called on the U.S. government to make businesses pay for their greenhouse-gas emissions.




— Vilsack again signals continuation of Food Box effort with changes. Food and nutrition programs remain a focal point for USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, including the Farmers to Families Food Box Program (FFFBP) launched by the Trump administration during the pandemic. The agency will hold listening sessions on the FFFBP to determine what worked and what did not work, Vilsack told an Anti-Hunger Policy Conference Wednesday. The aim of the listening session is to develop adjustments to the program to make sure as it is “is refashioned, and redesigned, if you will, [and] it's done in a way that provides the greatest amount of help to the most people.”


     Vilsack also touted increases in benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP/food stamps) and other nutrition-related efforts at USDA.


     Bottom line: Still more evidence that the FFFBP will continue under the Biden administration, especially given the popularity of the program and creating a closer link between farmers and consumers. But any administration will want to implement its own ideas for a program, even if it’s already popular.


— Tyson Foods says 15,000 of its workers have been vaccinated at 30 vaccine sites across the country and plans this week to expand its vaccination efforts to more of its workers in Arkansas and Missouri. Link for details.




 Summary: Global cases of Covid-19 are at 121,256,160 with 2,681,790 deaths, according to data compiled by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. case count is at 29,607,486 with 538,087 deaths. The Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center said that there have been 113,037,627 doses administered, 38,232,553 have been fully vaccinated, or 11.69% of the U.S. population.


— Europe’s drugs regulator reports on the safety of AstraZeneca’s vaccine. After some people who received the shot developed blood clots, many countries paused its use pending an investigation by the European Medicines Agency.


— U.S. vaccine deployment updates: When Pfizer and Moderna initially distributed their vaccines in December, there were reports of severe allergic reactions, or anaphylaxis. However, those cases appear to be rare, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, with the U.S. having administered 113 million doses to date. "Thus far, and you have to keep following these things very carefully, there are no safety signals that turn out to be red flags," he said regarding the currently deployed vaccines in the U.S. While the AstraZeneca vaccine hasn't been cleared for American use, there will likely be enough safety and efficacy data to grant the vaccine emergency use authorization in April.


— Fauci, Walensky to testify on virus response. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky are set to appear at a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing examining Covid-19 response. The hearing will also include ex-FDA chief David Kessler, the chief science officer for the U.S. government’s coronavirus response, and Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.


— U.S. to give $10 billion to schools for Covid-19 testing. The U.S. government plans to invest $10 billion in Covid-19 screening for schools, its latest step to increase testing nationwide and encourage schools to reopen for in-person learning. The funding, which the Biden administration announced Wednesday, comes from the recently enacted stimulus package. “Covid-19 testing is critical to saving lives and restoring economic activity,” Norris Cochran, acting secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement.


— WHO-led team of scientists had little power to conduct a thorough examination in Wuhan during its hunt for Covid-19’s origin, the WSJ reports (link). China, which resisted international pressure for an investigation, delayed the probe for months, secured veto rights over participants and insisted its scope encompass other countries as well, a WSJ investigation found. Meanwhile, the article says, “the Trump administration’s early assertions that the virus may have come from a Chinese laboratory soured diplomatic efforts to press China for a more rigorous probe, and the administration’s moves to withdraw from the WHO made it harder to rally allies. The world now risks never finding an answer to the virus’s origins.”




— House Republicans vote by secret ballot to support earmarks. House Republicans passed a resolution during their conference meeting on Wednesday in support of restoring earmarks, which allows members to secure federal funding for specific projects. The House GOP's 102-84 vote comes as Democrats gear up to revive the practice, which allows members to secure federal funding for specific projects. Opponents of the GOP move say the vote tally would have been far different had it not been by secret ballot. Both parties banned in 2011 after years of their association with wasteful projects and with corruption. Advocates say new transparency rules will help address those issues and encourage the kind of deal-making essential to bipartisan agreements.


     The move will allow Republican lawmakers to request project-level funding in their districts for appropriations bills for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, as well as in transportation and water infrastructure bills. It also allows limited tax benefits and tariff exemptions.


     Senate Republicans still have to decide on whether to participate in earmarking. Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said GOP members of his panel discussed earmarks this week, but there was no timeline for the chamber’s full caucus to make a decision. “We have to be very careful what we do,” said Shelby, adding that he hasn’t signed off on the transparency procedures developed by House Democrats yet and may want stronger ones. “I do worry about widespread, frivolous earmarks which could lead to problems.”


— Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has threatened to blow up the Senate to preserve the legislative filibuster rule, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is opposed to eliminating it. McConnell (R-Ky.) writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed (link): "If Democrats kill the filibuster by 50-50 vote, they’ll release furies they can barely imagine. ... Nobody serving in this chamber can even begin to imagine what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like."


     The Democratic approach to ending the filibuster in part comes from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) who told Axios that the Senate's legislative filibuster, which requires 60 votes for most legislation, wasn't a creation of the founding fathers: "The filibuster ... was designed to give the South the ability to veto any effective civil rights legislation or anti-lynching legislation," Warren said. “The filibuster has deep roots in racism, and it should not be permitted to serve that function, or to create or to create a veto for the minority. In a democracy, it's majority rules."


— Republicans say Biden broke law on border wall. Senate Republicans accused President Biden of breaking federal budget law when he ordered a halt to construction of a southern border wall and said the action contributed to a surge in illegal border crossings. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and 39 other Republicans wrote a letter to the Government Accountability Office seeking an investigation into the president’s actions, which they allege violated a 1974 act forbidding the executive branch from refusing to spend money appropriated by Congress. “On Jan. 20, in one of the first official acts of his presidency, Joseph Biden suspended border wall construction and ordered a freeze of funds provided by Congress for that purpose. In the weeks that followed, operational control of our southern border was compromised, and a humanitarian and national security crisis has ensued,” the letter states. “The President’s actions directly contributed to this unfortunate, yet entirely avoidable scenario. They are also a blatant violation of federal law a nd infringe on Congress’s constitutional power of the purse.”


     Democrat responds. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, in a statement called the previous administration’s southern border project a “taxpayer funded vanity wall” and “not an effective national policy."




— North Korea rules out U.S. talks. North Korea ruled out further talks with the U.S. for now, as Kim Jong Un’s regime sought to raise pressure on top Biden administration officials visiting Seoul. A senior North Korean diplomat confirmed that Pyongyang had rejected numerous overtures from Washington over the past month, dismissing them as a “time-delaying trick.” “It will only be a waste of time to sit with the U.S., as it is not ready to feel and accept new change and new times,” First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.


— Russian ambassador to the U.S. has been summoned to Moscow for consultations, as the Kremlin determines the next steps in relations with the United States.


— Treasury asked if states that take aid can cut taxes. House Republican leaders are asking Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to clarify if there are any permissible ways for states to cut taxes if they accept funding from a more than $360 billion relief fund for state and local governments. The members in the letter say they’re “especially concerned” about a provision that could levy restrictions on states if they accept the cash and then reduce state tax revenue through 2024.


— Keystone Pipeline halt prompts red states to sue. Texas and other red states sued the Biden administration for canceling the $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline, stepping up a legal fight over the controversial pipeline that is extending into a third presidential administration. Biden lacks unilateral authority to change energy policy set by Congress, according to a complaint filed in a Texas federal court.



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