When the House Agriculture Commodity, Exchanges and Credit Subcommittee held a hearing on rural development today, members mostly asked Agriculture Undersecretary for Rural Development Xochitl Torres Small about broadband issues.
In her opening statement, Torres Small said that rural development programs – including providing high-speed Internet service in rural America – are vital to allowing rural Americans to continue to live there. Echoing Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Torres Small said, “Often rural assets – from food to energy to natural resources – are taken from their place of origin and moved elsewhere to create jobs or opportunities away from the communities where they were originally produced. … Despite the challenges, the solutions are there in the experiences, stories, ideas and dreams of rural people if you listen carefully.”
Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-N.Y., is chairman of the subcommittee and presided over most of the hearing, but Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., made the opening statement.
“Americans should be able to choose where they want to live without having to make concessions on access to fast and reliable broadband Internet, clean water, and affordable health care,” Craig said. “Additionally, we must work to ensure that those diverse communities have the tools to thrive in a 21st-century economy. Part of achieving that goal is to strengthen the resilience of local supply chains so that they can better support the distribution of commodities and a diverse economy where residents have access to tools that will support their learning and success.”
Several members raised questions about the ReConnect Loan and Grant Program, which furnishes loans and grants to provide funds for the costs of construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas.
Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., ranking member of the full committee, and Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., both questioned the Biden administration’s decision to give nonprofits a preference in qualifying for the program. Torres Small said the decision was made in order to make sure that a wide range of applicants could qualify, particularly in difficult-to-serve areas.
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, also said the application process for ReConnect is difficult for smaller grants.
Thompson also told Torres Small he is upset that USDA does not consult with House Republicans before making “major policy changes until the very last moment.”
He also urged Torres Small to encourage the House Democratic leadership to take up a broadband bill that passed the committee by a wide, bipartisan majority.