Vilsack: More than agriculture at stake in farm bill

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pushed back on Thursday against efforts by some lawmakers to include provisions to change the controversial country-of-origin labeling rules in a final farm bill, saying the issue is better handled by the World T...

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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pushed back on Thursday against efforts by some lawmakers to include provisions to change the controversial country-of-origin labeling rules in a final farm bill, saying the issue is better handled by the World Trade Organization, which is already looking at the issue.

It would set a bad precedent if "every time there is a trade discussion, folks can run to Congress and get the rules changed in the middle of the game, and I think we need to let the game play out," Vilsack said at an event to mark the launch of POLITICO Pro Agriculture.

Country-of-origin rules, which require that certain meat and food products imported into the United States are labeled, have been a hot topic during the farm bill negotiations. In opening statements last month, several lawmakers came out in opposition to the controversial USDA rules, pointing to concerns that they serve as a protectionist trade measure and complaints about the rules by the meat industry.

Agriculture groups support a quick resolution, which could be provided through the farm bill.

"Our belief is this needs to get resolved; we don't need retaliation, particularly with a country that is one of our biggest markets ..." said Dale Moore, executive director for public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation. "It may take the repealing of COOL to do so, because it doesn't appear to be an administrative or regulatory" fix.


During his remarks, Vilsack reiterated the Obama administration's commitment to finalizing the farm bill by the end of the year; both chambers are working in conference committee to reconcile their versions of the bill.

"It's more than a farm bill," Vilsack said. "It's a jobs bill, it's the opportunity for us to invest in business development in rural America to take advantage of our natural resources. ... It's an energy bill ... it's a trade bill, it's a reform bill ... and it will help to reduce the deficit."

What's more, he added, "I think there is a link to it getting done and the Congress getting to important work on the budget."

But reaching an agreement will be difficult as lawmakers continue to tussle over contentious provisions, the biggest of which is language to cuts the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. While the House bill would cut almost $40 billion from the food aid program over 10 years, the Senate version only calls for a $4 billion reduction over that period.

Vilsack declined to provide a dollar figure that the administration would be happy with, saying only, "There's too much fascination and focus on numbers in this town, I think we need to focus on the policy."

The administration's silence on SNAP is not sitting well with some lawmakers, however.

Speaking on a panel during the Pro launch event, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass) said the nutrition program is key to passing the farm bill.

"The White house ought to take some leadership on this issue," said McGovern, a strong proponent of the program.


It's unlikely, however, that the lead negotiators on the farm bill have made progress on the nutrition title of the bill, which includes SNAP, said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) during the event.

Many of the less controversial issues are addressed first, and just by staff, before lawmakers are brought in to tackle the bigger issues, King said. The nutrition title will be the most difficult issue to resolve, "and at this point I don't think there is progress made on nutrition."

The lack of progress on the nutrition title does not bode well for the completion of the bill by Thanksgiving, which lawmakers have set as the time frame needed to get the measure through Congress by the end of the year.

Renewable fuel standards also came up during the discussions. Vilsack said the administration remains committed to supporting ethanol as part of its comprehensive energy policy, despite recent criticisms of the possibility that the EPA will lower ethanol levels in fuel.

"I think it would be hard to make the case the administration's backing away [from ethanol]," said Vilsack, responding to a question from Pro senior reporter Bill Tomson on whether the White House could withdraw support with the expected changes to EPA renewable fuel standards.

Vilsack added that there are real job and environmental benefits to promoting the homegrown fuel. "We're going to continue to support this industry," he said.

He added that the USDA and industry both need to be "more aggressive" in encouraging greater distributions of higher blends of ethanol. There are as many as 10 million flexible fuel vehicles on the road today, Vilsack said, and not many consumers realize they can put the ethanol blend E85 in the cars or know where to find stations offering the fuel option.

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