Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Sec. Vilsack On 'Fiscal Cliff' Farm Bill Extension: 'Disappointed' With Congress

As criticism rains down on the 9-month extension, the Agriculture Secretary looks to the next 5-year Farm Bill...
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack late on Wednesday said he's "pleased" with the massive compromise tax legislation that temporarily averted America's dive off the fiscal cliff, but is "disappointed" that lawmakers only offered a nine-month extension to the 2008 Farm Bill, rather than approving a new five-year bill.

"While I am relieved that the agreement reached prevents a spike in the price of dairy and other commodities, I am disappointed Congress has been unable to pass a multi-year reauthorization of the Food, Farm and Jobs bill to give rural America the long-term certainty they need and deserve," Vilsack said in a statement.

The extension came on the heels of a failed year-long attempt in 2012 to pass a new Farm Bill, and sets the stage for a bitter fight in 2013.  Though Vilsack has not yet been formally announced as the Agriculture Secretary for President Obama's second term, he said he will encourage Congress to get a better Farm Bill authorized.

"I will continue to work with Congress to encourage passage of a reauthorized bill that includes a strong and defensible safety net for producers, expanded rural economic opportunity in the new bio-based economy, significant support for conserving our natural resources, increased commitment to important research, and support for safe and nutritious food for all Americans," Vilsack said.

President Obama made no mention of the extension or other agriculture issues when he addressed the nation late on Tuesday night after the House approved the measure.  He did thank Vice President Joe Biden, who wrangled lawmakers from both chambers, and "all the leaders of the House and Senate."

The massive compromise deal postponed for just two months the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester, and the government has already gone over its debt limit, so that could mean pressure to try to finish a new Farm Bill in the next two months.
Whenever it happens, the Secretary will be working with infuriated lawmakers and advocates, who rained criticism on the extension as soon as the Senate approved it Tuesday on a vote of 89 to 8. 

While it averts a spike in milk prices that would have rolled into effect with no action, the extension does not protect dairy farmers, but rather privileges large dairy corporations.  It does not include disaster aid, and keeps intact $5 billion in subsidy payments for commodity crop farmers while failing to fund what USDA identifies as "specialty" crops--fruits, vegetables and tree nuts.   It also slashes funding for organic agriculture, clean water initiatives, beginning farmer and rancher projects, and SNAP-Ed, a federal-state partnership that supports nutrition education for persons eligible for Food Stamps.

During an impassioned speech on the Senate Floor on Tuesday, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., called it “absolutely outrageous” that other expired agriculture titles were not included in the extension agreement.  The 16 Democrats who voted against the legislation included House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn, who told Politico he was more than upset with the White House agreeing to the extension without new dairy legislation.

“'Upset’ is an understatement,” Peterson said. “I’m not going to talk with those guys. I’m done with them for the next four years.”

National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jerry Kozak blasted the deal as "a devastating blow to the nation’s dairy farmers” that "amounts to shoving farmers over the dairy cliff without providing any safety net below.” 

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition rebuked the package as "a disaster for farmers and the American people,” because it is "blatantly anti-reform." 

On Wednesday the Environmental Working Group issued a statement zinging lawmakers for approving an extension for "the widely discredited direct payment farm subsidies" that will go to "large farming operations that already reap record profits."

“While a deeply flawed nine-month extension is marginally better than a deeply flawed five-year farm bill, this short-term band-aid is not good public policy,” said Craig Cox, EWG senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources.

“A responsible measure would have cut direct payments and insurance subsidies and fully funded important conservation programs. It is critical that Congress craft a farm bill this year that supports family farmers and protects the environment." 

The International Dairy Foods Association, which opposed the dairy safety-net provision, was the single agriculture group to congratulate Congress and the Obama Administration today on the bill without expressing disappointment that the Farm Bill was not finished, noted The Hagstrom Report.

“The International Dairy Foods Association congratulates Congress and President Obama for reaching an agreement on how to address the important ‘fiscal cliff’ legislation,” IDFA President and CEO Connie Tipton said in a news release.

“We appreciate that the bill includes provisions that will avoid the resurrection of dairy policies from more than 50 years ago,” Tipton said. “This agreement allows Congress time to fully and openly consider future reforms to our nation's dairy policies.”

In early December, after the 2008 Farm Bill had already been expired for six weeks, Vilsack warned that rural America is on the brink of becoming irrelevant.

“Why is it we don’t have a farm bill?” he asked. “It isn’t just differences of policy, it is because rural America with its shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of the country.”

Still, on Wednesday he sounded optimistic.  

"I look forward to continuing the effort to get this critical work done," Vilsack said.


*H.R. 8 - The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, as amended and passed in the Senate, Jan. 1, 2013

*White House Fact Sheet: The Tax Agreement: A Victory For Middle Class Families & The Economy

*Congressional Budget Office: Estimate of the Budgetary Effects of H.R. 8

The Congressional Budget Office Score for the one-year extension

*Joint Committee On Taxation Analysis of the bill

*Roll call vote in the House

*Roll coll vote in the Senate 

*Transcript, President Obama's remarks on the deal

*In the photo at top, President Obama and Sec. Vilsack are at the McIntosh family farm in Missouri Valley, Iowa, on Monday, August 13, 2012 to view the drought stricken crops. USDA photo by Dave Kosling.