By Erik Wasson - 05/02/12 09:00 AM EDT
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in an interview with The Hill this week, said demands by the House GOP for deep cuts especially for food stamps now constitute the top obstacle for passage of a 2012 farm bill by September when current farm programs expire.
Vilsack offered some praise for the version of the farm bill that passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee last week, even though it contains about $9 billion less in deficit reduction than President Obama had sought in his latest budget.
“This is still a long way from where it needs to be,” he said. “It isn’t so much what I want to see different as what you need to get the votes you need to get it through the process.”
Vilsack noted that southern senators on the committee had voted against the committee bill, authored by Chairman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and ranking member Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) because they felt the safety net for rice, peanuts and cotton were not enough.
“So obviously there is still a little work needed there,” he said, before turning to the key problem.
“Perhaps the larger barrier and the greater challenge will be finding that common ground between the Senate proposal, the president’s proposal –which are pretty much aligned—and the House which has proposed up to $200 billion of cuts in both commodity, conservation and nutrition programs,” he said.
The House-passed 2013 budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) calls for the food stamp program to be block granted to the states, resulting in massive spending cuts.
Vilsack said these cuts would not only harm the poor who use food stamps, but farmers could lose $20 billion in direct income from cuts to the program as well.
“That’s obviously just not going to happen,” he said.
“If that’s what it takes to get House votes to get this bill through the process, that’s obviously a problem,” he added. Because of this, the heads of the House Agriculture Committees Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) “may have their work cut out for them,” he said.
The agriculture secretary criticized related attempts by the House GOP to replace automatic cuts triggered to defense spending with cuts to food stamps. A budget reconciliation bill including these cuts is slated for a House floor vote this month.
“If you basically take the Defense department with the size of its budget off, if you take it off the playing field, that really puts a disproportionate burden on everyone else,” he said.
In contrast, Vilsack praised the Stabenow-Roberts farm bill for ending the system of direct payments, which sends cash to farmers even if they no longer produce anything.
“The fact that we are getting away from direct payments, getting to a system that is much more defensible out in the countryside, is certainly something the president has called for and certainly a positive,” the secretary said.
He noted that when he announced two years earlier that direct payments were not going to be backed by the administration going forward, he was met with skepticism.
Now, direct payments are being supplanted by new forms of crop insurance meant to guard against shallow farm losses.
Vilsack said that this new proposed system is an improvement.
“I think this system is much easier to defend than the direct payment system. People just do not understand direct payments in the face of high commodity prices. They do understand the purchase of insurance,” he said.
The secretary did say more work may be needed on a proposed cotton program that has been newly criticized by Brazil. Traditional cotton subsidies have been ruled against in the World Trade Organization and Brazilian opposition to a new revenue insurance scheme could lead to sanctions, Vilsack noted.
Vilsack would not say he is hopeful about passing a farm bill by September but instead he stressed the dangers of not doing so.
“In September of last year, all of the disaster programs expired. Which means that if we have a tornado, a fire, a flood, a drought, those farmers absent crop insurance have little or no protection unlike what they had the last three or four years with livestock indemnity, the forage program and the SURE program,” he said.
He added that waiting until after the election will not likely make it easier to pass a bill that spends money on commodity subsidies.
“The situation is not going to get any easier. Time is not on our side,” he said.
Overall, the USDA head said that President Obama has been good for agriculture. Among other things, he said there has been record investment in rural communities, support for biofuels and stepped-up trade enforcement and trade promotion for agricultural goods.
“The last three years, there probably have been no better three years in terms of ag exports, ag income, ag investment, than in the history probably of the country,” he said.
This May 15, USDA will be celebrating its 150th anniversary, an occasion which allows Vilsack to draw comparisons between President Lincoln’s creation of the department during the Civil War and Obama’s investment in rural areas.
The secretary said there will be no lavish party, such as the $800,000 Las Vegas training extravaganza that roiled the General Services Administration last month, however.
“It’s going to be in the cafeteria so that tells you a little about it,” Vilsack said.