Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday there is a “concerted” effort in Congress to pass a farm bill this year, but also suggested that hardline conservative demands are making the effort more challenging for House Republicans.

Speaking to members of the North American Agricultural Journalists, Vilsack also warned GOP attempts to restrict USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation spending authority could it more difficult for the department to respond to emergency needs.

But Vilsack suggested Congress could be more prescriptive about how the CCC is used without blocking USDA’s ability to use the fund without congressional authority.

CCC is essentially a revolving fund that USDA has long used to make payments for farm programs, including Price Loss Coverage and Agriculture Risk Coverage. Successive administrations have stepped up use of CCC authority for temporary programs, ranging from trade assistance to Vilsack’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities initiative.

“My view is, use the CCC but define specifically how it is to be used. Don't cap it,” Vilsack said. “Say, ‘For situation X, Y and Z, use the CCC the way we do PLC and ARC.’ … That way you’re actually investing more resources into the agricultural economy.”

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., said last week that he wants to move a new farm bill through the panel by Memorial Day and has offered some concessions to Democrats. He said he will not attempt to shift money from conservation programs or nutrition assistance into other titles of the bill, including commodity programs or crop insurance.

However, Thompson intends to tap the secretary’s CCC authority in some fashion to boost funding for the commodity and crop insurance titles. He has not publicly detailed his proposal.

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“I think the chairman's genuine in an effort to try and get to yes,” Vilsack said of Thompson. “I think he's trying to find ways in which you can attract Democratic support because he knows he doesn't have 100% support” among Republicans.

Vilsack suggested the latest budget plan for the Republican Study Committee has added a new complication for Thompson. Recent RSC proposals have failed to get much traction, if any, and Thompson has dismissed their significance. The latest RSC plan, released in March, calls for a wide range of deep cuts in farm bill programs, including a cut in crop insurance premium subsidies that would save taxpayers $23 billion over 10 years.

Vilsack said the RSC plan is “pretty radical" and “runs counter to a lot of the information and a lot of the positions that have been taken in the conversation concerning the farm bill.” He said “there seems to be a disconnect in messaging there.”

Vilsack also reiterated his concern that congressional criticism of China is playing a part in the growing U.S. ag trade deficit.  

“Unfortunately, it is a big deal” for the Chinese, he said, noting that the Chinese ag minister raised concerns with him about a new Arkansas law that forced Syngenta to divest research acreage in that state.

“This may be just a coincidence … [but] the trade deficit for the first quarter of fiscal year 2004 was $6 billion. China's sales to the US were $6 billion less than they were last year,” he said.

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