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Vilsack: Deficit-cutting budget must preserve U.S. competitiveness

By JERRY HAGSTROM

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today presented an Obama administration budget proposal with few surprises, but also warned House Republicans, who are proposing a big cut in USDA programs for the remainder of this fiscal year, that cutting the budget deficit should not reduce American competitiveness.

If enacted, the Obama budget for discretionary spending at USDA in fiscal year 2012 would be $23.9 billion, about $3.2 billion less than in fiscal year 2010. The White House emphasized that the budget would still bring high-speed Internet service to rural America and encourage the development of renewable fuels, as well as providing nutrition assistance for needy Americans.

Vilsack noted that the administration did not propose cutting the market access program as it did last year, and that the budget includes an additional $20 million for export promotion, a sign that the administration is serious about President Obama’s commitment to doubling exports in five years. But the budget also contained the cuts to the direct payments program that were included in last year’s budget proposal, as well as cuts to conservation and housing programs.

In a call to reporters, Vilsack said that it was “a very challenging and difficult budget that we presented today.” In a statement, he said, “In this budget, we are cutting programs not because we want to, but because we have to. American families have been forced to tighten their belts and government must do the same. The budget fulfills the president’s pledge to completely eliminate earmarks. We are promoting good government and streamlining agency operations in a host of programs. And we have reduced or terminated selected programs.”

Asked by The Hagstrom Report for his reaction to the House Republican proposal to cut $5.2 billion from USDA programs for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, Vilsack said the budget cutting effort “should not compromise our ability to invest in growth opportunities” and listed biofuels, conservation and ecosystem markets as examples of programs that should not be cut.

But the Agriculture secretary also went out of his way not to antagonize House Republicans. “We will work with our friends in Congress to find out where that proper balance is,” he said.

Vilsack said he does not think it necessary for Congress to direct funds through earmarks for USDA to address issues of pests and diseases that arise in particular parts of the country. USDA may have to redirect money to deal with those problems as they arise, he said, adding that construction of facilities, which is often contained in earmarks, should be addressed in a national context.

Perhaps the most dramatic commitment the administration made in the budget was to restore the future cut in food stamp benefits that was used to offset the cost of the child nutrition bill that Congress passed in December. Obama promised to restore those funds and the commitment is included in the budget.

But Vilsack noted that it would have no effect on the 2012 budget because the commitment is to restore benefits between November 2013 and March 2014. Congress was able to use that budget authority because a provision in the economic stimulus package that raised food stamp benefits has lasted much longer than expected because food inflation has been so low. The food stamp provision provided $2.2 billion in budget authority for a child nutrition bill provision that increased the amount of money provided to schools for school meal programs.

President Obama’s budget is unlikely to be enacted by Congress, but it is important as a statement of the administration’s priorities, and signals what issues it might consider important in the process of passing appropriations bills.

Republicans today dismissed the proposal as not serious in its budget cuts. Senate Agriculture ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, said in a statement, “The administration has once again dusted off old proposals aimed at pitting farmers against farmers. Thankfully, Congress has consistently rejected these efforts in the past. Rather than leading an honest discussion regarding the underlying drivers behind the national debt, the administration instead chose to cut our producers’ safety net. Agriculture is ready for an open discussion about the federal budget and willing to contribute its fair share to achieve a fiscally responsible outcome. However, in doing so, Congress should not put more than that fair share on the backs of farmers and ranchers. I appreciate the administration’s perspective but Congress will take over from here on setting our national budget priorities.”