Ag Secretary wants new farm bill, time is short

Sep 13, 2013

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stressed last Tuesday that the Obama administration opposes another extension of the 2008 farm bill even though time is running short as the latest extension ends Sept. 30.

“An extension is not the answer, and I will tell you we are very much opposed to the idea of an extension and so is the Senate,” Vilsack said in a conference call with reporters. “That’s just not going to happen.”

Vilsack has been trying to ramp up pressure on Congress to complete a farm bill, even tapping into social media by urging farmers and others to explain what the farm bill means to them.

The House of Representatives could hold a floor debate this week on a bill that would cut nutrition programs by as much as $40 billion over 10 years. The cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are 10 times the level passed in the Senate earlier this year. The administration also opposes the House SNAP proposal and is lobbying for its defeat. Vilsack called the SNAP vote a “foil” for an argument over government entitlement programs.

“I sincerely hope it gets defeated and I sincerely hope that regardless of the outcome of that vote, that the House then gets serious about getting this farm bill done,” he said. “To do that, they have got to get conferees appointed.”

The Senate has been prepared to move to conference.

Not so in the House. In fact, House members have indicated there is no likelihood of House leaders appointing conferees for the farm bill until after Oct. 1.

Vilsack chided House members for only planning nine days at the Capitol in September, making it far more likely debate on the farm bill will continue through much of the fall. “A lot of us will be working more than nine days in September. Congress might try that. They might try working on Fridays. Shoot, they might try working on Saturdays and Sundays like some of us do to get the job done.”

An extension rewards past failures and “creates great risk,” Vilsack said. One concern would be if Congress were to eliminate the $4.8 billion annual direct payments in an extension without allowing at least some of those funds to be shifted elsewhere. That would translate into significantly steeper farm-program cuts than under either the Senate or House versions of the farm bill.

Vilsack noted there would be no real immediate impact on conservation programs if there were no farm legislation on Oct. 1. There would still be funding available and both projects and grants to announce. Long term, however, the lack of a farm bill would start to affect the ability of livestock producers and farmers to plan for conservation investments if USDA funds and program authority dries up.

“It makes it personally impossible for landowners to make decisions about their land long term,” Vilsack said. “What it basically does is create a serious risk of making the wrong decision. So, as a result, people don’t make any decisions.”

Other aspects the farm bill would be a problem. Specifically, Vilsack said no farm bill at the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30 would reflect another failure to resolve the Brazilian cotton case. The U.S. is currently paying the Brazilian cotton industry $147 million annually in damages due to that World Trade Organization ruling.

Further, the lack of a disaster program continues to hit livestock producers who continue to struggle with drought, Vilsack said. — Chris Clayton, DTN