MOUNT PLEASANT — The U.S. House of Representatives in 2012 were given one year to come to an agreement on a long-term farm bill. They’re not getting another, said United States Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“There is no support for an extension in the Senate. It just simply rewards failure, and this needs to get done. Everybody in the countryside knows it needs to get done,” Vilsack said following a town hall hearing on what he calls the food, farm and jobs bill Saturday morning at the Old Threshers Reunion in Mount Pleasant.
The five-year farm bill is set to expire Sept. 30 without action from Congress. While both chambers have passed their respective versions of the bill, the House has not appointed members to a conference committee that would work to reach a compromise on language that could pass.
Vilsack puts the standstill squarely at the heels of the House of Representatives, which passed its farm bill without the nutrition program provisions and has not moved forward with appointing its conferees.
“It’s time we say to House members, ‘We gave you a year. You promised you’d get it done. Get to work,’ “ Vilsack said, adding the House has to “get its act together.”
Vilsack said there also would be problems with passing another one-year extension. Those problems include retaliatory tariffs Brazil could begin to impose if an agreement is not reached, halting any effort to redirect direct payments into other safety net areas and no disaster assistance to livestock producers who have been impacted by drought.
Like House leadership, some of the attendees at the forum also have questions about the use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the former food stamp program.
The House initially sought a farm bill that would make more drastic cuts to SNAP than the Senate version, before removing them entirely to be debated separately. Vilsack said the nutrition programs typically help ensure the farm programs can get majority support, when so few members of Congress represent rural America.
While one attendee questioned the amount of fraud in SNAP, another focused on the ease of qualifying for the program.
Vilsack laid out what the U.S. Department of Agriculture does to combat fraud and abuse in the program but also some facts. For instance, he said there is three to four times the amount of fraud in crop insurance than in the former food stamp program, but he rarely hears concerns about that.
He said despite concerns people are spending their SNAP dollars on extravagances, it’s hard to regulate exactly what people eat. Vilsack used another example, this time asking whether anyone in the audience gets the shredded wheat cereal without sugar.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so,” Vilsack said, before recognizing one or two hands raised.
He, then, pointed out the reduced sugar version of the cereal is actually less healthy than the sugar-coated shredded wheat. After explaining the details, he asked how a computer that reads the SNAP cards is supposed to process the complications of the relative healthiness of food items or how a teenage shop clerk would argue with customers about their purchases.
He pointed out further that 92 percent of users of SNAP are senior citizens, people with disabilities, children or people who are in the workforce.
During his brief opening speech, Vilsack voiced support for comprehensive immigration reform, saying it will ensure the workforce necessary for the agriculture industry’s needs.
He then fielded questions about helping younger generations stay in farming and getting a new generation involved.
Deborah Whitaker of Warsaw, Ill., said she is a military mom who lost one of her sons in an accident a year ago. She is working with his military friends on a gardening project and asked what more the USDA could do to help veterans.
Vilsack said the Agriculture Department helps in three ways: by assisting with business planning, securing credit and offering advice on marketing. He also said his department makes a point of hiring veterans.
“We’re hiring these kids because they come out of the military as problem solvers. They have a way of thinking and a discipline that really makes a difference in terms of providing help and assistance at USDA,” Vilsack said. “Twenty-five percent of our new hires have been veterans in the last couple years.”
“Wonderful,” Whitaker said in response.