Tom Vilsack: Farmers must get mad

Jul 19, 2013
by DTN

Congress would be creating one more new political crisis if they fail to appoint conferees for a farm bill, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday, July 17.

Vilsack was reacting to statements by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK, late Tuesday that Lucas does not expect the House Republican leadership to appoint farm bill conferees before a determination is made on a nutrition bill. Lucas said it was possible that informal “conversations” can take place, but Vilsack said that “without conferees, there is no vehicle for the moderate middle” to prevail in negotiations.

Although noting that he has a high level of respect for Lucas and House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-MN, for writing a farm bill under difficult circumstances, Vilsack said, “Actions speak louder than words. Time is short for action.”

Vilsack made the statements to reporters after a speech to the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) where he said, “This Congress seems only capable of making a decision when there’s a crisis.”

He cited congressional action to provide funding for meat inspectors and for air traffic controllers when the Obama administration said the rules of sequestration legislation would not allow shifting of money to keep meat inspectors and air traffic controllers on the job.

Not appointing conferees, Vilsack said, could create another crisis.

In what amounted to a lobbying pep talk, Vilsack told several hundred corn growers they should get over their rural politeness and tell House Republicans “the nation needs a farm bill.”

NCGA President Pam Johnson responded that her members would tell Congress, “We are mad as hell. We are not going to take this anymore. We are going to hold you accountable.”

In his opening remarks, the secretary pointed out that U.S. agricultural productivity has been helped by certainty in farm policy and that the five-year farm bill would provide for increased research to deal with climate change and how to feed a population that will grow to 9 billion people “in the lifetime of people in this room.”

The Senate bill, he noted, creates a foundation that would attract private sector dollars to agricultural research.

The bill must also be comprehensive, he said, and the House’s attempt to “magically divide” the bill into a farm-only bill and a nutrition bill will not work.

He added that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP or food stamps, “is a part of the safety net. If people can buy more at the grocery store, they will.”

The House passed a farm-bill only bill two weeks ago.

“We as a country, as a people need a farm bill,” Vilsack said.

But when a member asked for advice on what to tell members of Congress, Vilsack said to tell them, “You can’t have a bill that represents the extreme on either side, right or left. You can’t overreach.” The farm bill, he said, “is not about placating primary voters in your district,” adding that the nation needs to recognize that “struggling Americans” need food.

Vilsack also told the corn growers to be firm about their unwillingness to accept another extension of the 2008 farm bill.

Extending the existing bill “is not a solution” but “an act of failure,” he said. Vilsack also urged them to tell Congress, “We gave you a shot” with last year’s extension, and to remind them that the extension did not include specialty crops, research, an energy title, or establish a new research foundation.

“Say, ‘Don’t talk to me about extending the farm bill,’” he added.

If members of Congress argue that they can do the farm bill next year, Vilsack said, “Do you really think in an election year we’re going to get it done?” Members of Congress said last year they might finish the bill in a lameduck session, but that did not happen, he emphasized.

Johnson also presented Vilsack with an award from NCGA.

“He has been a steadfast supporter and advocate for American agriculture, and I am proud to call him a friend of corn. During his tenure, we have seen him work tirelessly to promote agricultural exports, create a more vibrant rural economy and strengthen the role of farmers.”

In an interview Wednesday with KKBS Radio in Guyon, OK, Lucas noted the nutrition title that passed the House Agriculture Committee would already save $12 billion by eliminating categorical eligibility, another $8 billion through a provision that would require states in the Northeast to put 20 times as much as they currently do under what is called “heat and eat.” It would also stop USDA from advertising food stamps and from hiring recruiters to promote their use.

On top of that, amendments would give states the authority to require people to work, to require drug tests and to refuse food stamps to convicted felons, he noted.

“It was a pretty tough reform package,” Lucas said, although he acknowledged he had been unable to get enough Republicans to support it.

Liberals, he said, do not want any changes to food stamps, particularly in the context of a nutrition-only bill.

“What do I do to persuade 218 of my colleagues to pass a standalone bill?” Lucas said. “I’m going to try. I gave my word.”

Ultimately, Lucas said, the Senate and the House have to work out the differences. “We have to have a farm bill.” — Jerry Hagstrom, DTN Political Correspondent