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Vilsack: Congress can still pass farm bill this month

By JERRY HAGSTROM

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today urged National Farmers Union members in fiery language to fight for a new farm bill.

He also defended the Obama administration’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program and biofuels agenda against critics. (See following story.)

Reacting to reports that House Republican leaders are not sure about how to handle the farm bill in the eight days they are scheduled to be in session this month, Vilsack said the idea that Congress can’t pass the farm bill is “just baloney.”

“There is no more important piece of legislation Congress can work on for farmers, producers and ranchers than passage of a farm bill this month,” Vilsack told Farmers Union members from around the country who are in Washington for a fly-in and spent Monday morning in the Jefferson Auditorium at the Agriculture Department listening to a series of speakers.

They were scheduled to go to the White House and Capitol Hill for other briefings, to lobby Congress, and to participate in Wednesday’s Farm Bill Now coalition rally on Capitol Hill in which nearly 50 farm groups will participate.

The record farm income of recent years, record exports and an unemployment rate dropping faster in rural America than in the rest of the country are all “at risk” if a new farm bill is not passed by September 30, Vilsack added.

If members of Congress say that they are divided and that passing the farm bill is “hard,” farmers should remind them that in the middle of the Civil War in 1862 Congress passed the Homestead Act and the bills to build the transcontinental railroad and establish the land grant college system.

Republican leaders say Congress is divided about how big a cut to make in food stamps, but Vilsack said the Republicans are “acting like food stamp recipients and farmers are from two separate worlds.”

Ninety-two percent of people who receive food stamp benefits — now formally known as the supplemental nutrition assistance program — are senior citizens with the lowest levels of Social Security, the disabled, children and parents “who are not at home collecting welfare checks but out working doing the best they can,” Vilsack said.

In addition, he noted, the benefits recipients spend on food stimulate the economy and 14 percent of that money ends up in farmers’ pockets.

Republicans also talk about the fraud and error rates in food stamps, but Vilsack noted that the fraud rate is less than 1 percent and the error rate is the lowest its ever been, and that the error rate for crop insurance is six or seven times that for food stamps.

But he told the Farmers Union members he believes the Republicans are also using the divisions over food stamps as a cover for a goal of cutting commodity programs, crop insurance and conservation programs by $50 billion over 10 years and “they don’t want you to know that.”

Vilsack said Republicans are saying, “Just extend the current bill. Trust us.”

But then he asked, “After the election will [the farm bill] look the same as what the Senate passed? Or is the safety net going to be chipped away?”

During a question and answer session, Vilsack also said that Republicans want to cut other government programs because they want to maintain tax cuts “for people making an enormous amount” and don’t want to cut the military.

“I’m not happy I am a member of the first generation that didn’t pay for wars,” he said, nothing that the only people with “skin in the game” in Iraq and Afghanistan, are “those kids going over there.”

Vilsack also noted that Republican budget plans to do not call for any cuts in military programs. “Does anyone believe there’s not a cent of efficiency that could be found there?” he asked.